Chuang-Tzu and the Butterfly


One of my favorite stories from Chinese philosophy is from the great Taoist writer Chuang-tzu (369-286 B.C.E.), whose gentle wit and humor graced the literature of the later Chou dynasty, two centuries after Confucius. As translated by Lin Yutang, Chuang-tzu’s story goes something like this:

“Once upon a time, I, Chuang-tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chuang-tzu. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then Chuang-tzu dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am Chuang-tzu. This is what is meant by the transformation of things.”

I too have been having dreams of transformations lately, but not about butterflies. And my dreams – unlike Chuang-tzu’s, which left him happily puzzled, bemused and ultimately world-famous – have been leavning me just confused and somewhat sad.

My dreams are about my two teenaged kids. And, while scenes and situations may vary, the basic theme of the dreams always stays the same: my son and daughter transform. That’s right, they transform, but not into butterflies, bees, birds, or Chinese philosophers – any of which would make for a reasonably amusing dream – but rather into themselves at different ages.

Here is an example. When my son Daniel turned 19 and left home to go into the army, I had a dream that my wife and I were standing in our living room, watching Daniel bouncing like a tennis ball off the walls and ceiling. I distinctly recall his making a sort of “boing” sound every time he hit the ceiling or a wall. Laughing merrily, he would leap up, somersault in mid-air, hit the ceiling with a “boing”, bounce off, somersault downwards – still laughing, mind you – and hit the wall or floor with another “boing”. Then another bounce, another mid-air somersault, more laughter and, of course, another “boing” somewhere else. With each new bounce and “boing”, however, he would suddenly transform into himself at a different age. He would hit the wall at age 19, boing, and bounce off as a 3 year-old. He’d land on the floor at age 3, boing, and then somersault upwards as an 8 year-old. He’d ricochet off the wall at age 8, boing, and go spinning away as a 9 month-old baby. Boing, boing, boing, transform, transform, transform. And all the while, laughing uproariously. I recall complaining to my wife, “I don’t like this. Make him stop doing this.” But my wife, amused by all of the bouncing, boinging and age transformations (this was a dream, don’t forget) simply smiled and said, “Oh well, you know he’s always been a show-off. Don’t worry; he’ll stop when he gets tired.” But I simply couldn’t stand another “boing.” Grabbing Daniel in mid-flight from wall to ceiling, I saw that he now appeared to be 6 years old. I let my mind draw a picture of Daniel at age 6: a beautiful little boy who was always at the door when I came home from work, who always wanted to be picked up and hugged, read to, carried to bed and put to sleep with an impromptu puppet show. I held him tightly and said, “Daniel, enough with the bouncing and boinging! No more transformations! Stay like this! Stay 6 years old! Just for a while, okay? Please.” He looked up at me for a long moment – smiling a sentimental smile with a distinct edge of sympathy – bounded out of my arms, hit the ceiling with one last boing, and landed on his feet in all of his 19 years as the scene slowly faded and the dream came to an end. I awoke with a pounding headache and the feeling of a 100 pound weight on my chest.

Are you ready for another one? I hope so. Writing magazine articles like this is an excellent form of therapy and a lot cheaper than seeing a psychiatrist.

My teenage daughter Rachel recently became 18 years old. I don’t recall being able to understand 18 year-old girls back when I was 18 years old myself, I certainly can’t figure them out now. In the dream I had a few nights ago, however, Rachel was a perfectly comprehensible 5 year-old child. Clad in a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and a pair of pink shorts, her hair in pig-tails, and hugging her favorite teddy bear, she was the very definition of the word “adorable.” As we were preparing for some sort of picnic or family excursion, my daughter seemed to be everywhere at once – packing toys, jumping up and down with excitement, hugging her mother and me, and telling us how much she was looking forward to our imminent getaway. As the dream continued, however, I began to notice that something was not quite right. I sense that my ostensibly 5 year-old daughter’s childlike personality was somehow strained and artificial, almost as though she was trying too hard to be cute – trying to hard to convince.

Finally I sighed, smiled a sad smile and said, “Rachel, you don’t have to do this. I appreciate your wanting to make me happy, but I know how old you really are, and I know that you have to grow up.”

“Are you sure?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I barely managed to reply as my throat began to constrict.

“Well, okay then,” she said gently. “You’d better stand back a little, Dad.”

With a loud crack and puff of smoke, she transformed upwards into her present age and height, a shade taller than me. Her eyes sharply fixed on mine, jaws grinding and chewing gum snapping, she shrugged her shoulders slightly and mumbled, “I’m going into Tel Aviv with my friends.” I woke up saying, “Go, Enjoy.” This time, the weight on my chest was heavier.

What have I learned from these dreams? I have learned that I’ve obviously got my psychiatric work cut out for me in the years ahead. But…if I can somehow manage to evolve from an over-protective father – diddled to distraction by crazy dreams – to someone who has learned how to let go, and if I can just get through the relentless passage of time without losing my mind or having to write more magazine articles like this one, then that achievement will truly be, in the immortal words of our friend Chuang-tzu, “what is meant by the transformation of things.”

Image credit: Denis Collette


  1. I had a bit of nervous laughter; transformation.. parenthood.. Chuang-Tzu and Carl, the voice in your dreams are so real and shared by all. Nomatter, I enjoyed the story here; it made me smile and willing to “transform”..

Comments are closed.