Don’t Be a Processionary Caterpillar

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself, any direction you choose.” – Dr. Seuss

A key concept to grasp is this aspect of ‘choice’. We need to realize that we are in control of our thoughts, choices and responses. Once we understand that fact and the impact it has, we attain guidance and accountability over our lives. We all have ownership and are responsible for our success. ‘Responsibility’ when broken down to its root words literally means “answer with aptitude” or “respond with ability” – the ‘ability’ to choose a ‘response.’ That response can be anything- be happy or sad, forgiving or spiteful, aware or unaware, etc.

I am often surprised at how novel this concept seems to be. As a mature, responsible adult (even a young adult), one should realize they are in control of their thoughts, choices and responses. It can start simply by listening to the language about choices. Instead of making statements like “I can’t…” use the phrase “I choose to…” People who always say, “I can’t because…” are saying they don’t have control of their life.  The choice may be work over play, paying taxes over going to jail, going to class over sleeping – but they are still choices.  By using the right words about choices, we can reflect our thought process and reaffirm that we do control our choices.

When you think about it, we have little choice on where or when unexpected circumstances occur.  However, we have total choice on how we respond to those circumstances. We never have total control on loss; however, we have total control on how we accept it and come back.  As a coach, I often told my teams: “I don’t care who we play, when we play or where play.  I am only concerned with how we play”. Who, when and where are all determined by someone else; how is decided by us.

“What is important is not what happens to us, but how we respond to what happens to us.”- Jean-Paul Sartre, French Philosopher, Writer, Activist

There is a saying that goes- “you didn’t design the seas, so you can’t control the currents; you didn’t design the boat so you can’t make it unsinkable; but you can steer the boat through the seas.”  By not wasting effort on what we can’t control, we have more focus (and available efforts) on what we can control.

Joseph in the Old Testament is the perfect example of choice: Sold to slavery, servant to Potiphar, wrongly accused, imprisoned; yet he chose to maintain his integrity and deal with these circumstances.  He then rose to become Pharaoh’s right-hand man, put in charge of the whole land of Egypt.

There is a difference between gifts and choices.  To paraphrase a commencement speech by Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon:  Gifts are easy — God blessed us with our gifts.  Choices are hard, because they are under our control.  In the end, we are the sum of our choices.

“It is not about what you are capable of; it is about what you are willing to do.”  – Mike Tomlin, NFL football coach

In the above quote, capability is a gift; willingness is a choice.

We are accountable for our thoughts, choices and responses. Acknowledge this ownership and take personal accountability. Strive to have integrity in the moment of choice.  Choose based on principles and values and not on moods and conditions. For more details on this concept read my recent “Toothpaste” blog post. Like a drop-step in basketball or an offensive lineman’s reach step, this step of mindful choice will take practice and conditioning to take root. Dr. Kevin Elko is a Performance Consultant, Author, Speaker who I have referenced before has stated; “You are not a born loser. You are not a born winner. You are a born chooser. “

In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says “every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before…all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature.” Each choice we make either allows us to live more fully in God’s love or drives us further away.

Opting not to make a choice, as the class=”=””ic rock band Rush sang- “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice” creates bigger issues. Failing to choose to be aware of life’s responsibilities can create a great chasm between the person society needs and the lesser person we become.

Not making choices can also create the “processionary caterpillar syndrome.”  Jean Henri Fabre, a French naturalist, in the early 1900’s experimented with processionary caterpillars, a type of caterpillar that blindly follows the one in front of it. He placed the caterpillars in a complete circle around the rim of the flowerpot, with the first one touching the back of the last one.  Pine needles, the food of the processionary caterpillar, were placed in the center of the circle. The caterpillars began their procession around the flowerpot, one following the other in a circle. This went on hour after hour, day after day, for an entire week. In the end, every one of the caterpillars dropped dead of starvation. The one thing that could have saved them was only inches away, but without purposeful thought or action, the caterpillars continued with a habitual routine that eventually killed them. I use this analogy with football underclassmen that would be in awe and blindly follow Seniors, whether good or bad.

The Jesuits have a great exercise to help build positive choices. They call it, The Daily Examen. It is a technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern his direction for us. Twice a day they stop and among their prayers ask themselves “Am I doing the right things to take me to a higher plane.” I know one individual who places two 2 coins in the left pocket at the start of his day and moves them to his right pocket as he conducts his reflections. If at the end of the day he still has coins in his left pocket, he knows he did not meet the Daily Examen.

God wants us to make decisions wisely, but it’s not all about the outcome. Remember my ‘coach speak’ – it is how we play. We can gain much during prayer and discernment. Discernment is a decision-making process that honors the place of God’s will in our lives, a time-honored practice in the Christian tradition. Every choice we make, no matter how small, is an opportunity to align ourselves with God’s will. Let’s not be processionary caterpillars thoughtlessly following the ways of society while the food that can save us is within our grasp.

Scroll to Top