Experiencing leg aches as I described a couple of days ago is an apt metaphor for the necessary pain of physical and spiritual growth. The world of entomology provides the most helpful metaphor to me: an insect shedding its skin.

Insects do not have internal skeletons. Instead they have an exoskeleton, a hard outer skin that holds everything together.

cicadaThis exoskeleton provides them protection from the elements and from predators and is fundamental to their survival. However, because this exoskeleton is rigid, it does not grow with the rest of their body. When the insect emerges from its winter rest, the body has grown too large for the exoskeleton. So the insect secretes a fluid that softens the exoskeleton, causing it to split from the pressure of the insect’s body. The insect then wiggles its way out of the exoskeleton. The old skin has served its purpose, but it is no longer of any use.

Now there is one additional aspect to this process that is important to know. Once the insect has shed its old skin, it takes a while for the new skin underneath to harden and provide the necessary protection. It is during this time, between the shedding of the old and the full development of the new, that the insect is most vulnerable.

I find that an evolving faith, or inner growth of any kind has been a similar process for me. At one time in my life a particular belief or value or conviction was an essential part of my life. However, as life taught me new things about myself, about others, about the world, the belief that was once crucial became less useful in helping me understand my experience. Ultimately, to hold onto it became a burden.

Life is a process of shedding skins that no longer fit, that no longer serve the purpose or meaning they once served.

Sometimes these beliefs are softened and melted away by internal processes, growth and changes, not unlike the exoskeleton of insects. To me, those are the normal painful experiences, the disappointments and losses that come with growing up. At other times, however, these beliefs are ripped away by trauma and tragedy over which we have no control.

However, unlike the insect we have choices. We can in fact hold onto our old beliefs even after they cease to have a useful purpose, and I often do, because giving up those beliefs leaves me vulnerable. When those beliefs are challenged, get cracked, no longer fit, it is often terrifying and confusing to give them up because, like the insect, I often have nothing solid to replace it with. That takes time to solidify.

Consequently, for me life is often a process of choosing between two kinds of discomfort when it comes to an evolving faith or growing up in general. I can chose the pain of dragging around an old belief system that has become a burden and keeps me from further growth, or I can choose the pain of being vulnerable and frightened until that which is new has solidified and become more a part of me.