Category Archives: science

Relay Race

A couple of days ago, I read a blog post about monarch butterflies by Morgan Harper Nichols. []

She talked about how the monarch butterflies migrate thousands of miles each year, leaving cold regions as far north as Canada to warmer grounds as far south as Mexico.

The most fascinating part about this long voyage is that monarch butterflies have a life span of only a few weeks, so it’s not a single butterfly making the round trip to the south and back. Rather, it’s multiple generations of butterflies making the long journey in sequence, each butterfly covering just one leg of the journey.

There is so much that is amazing and mysterious about this. How do the butterflies collectively “know” where to go, year after year, over thousands and thousands of miles? How is this knowledge passed down from generation to generation, and how does each butterfly know to do its own part, when the entire journey must be an unimaginably large and invisible odyssey to each?

It’s like an epic never-ending relay race, with each member of the team receiving the baton and carrying it to the next milestone and then passing it on to the next, without ever seeing the finish line – because maybe there is none. It’s an incredible story about endurance, cooperation, and the ingenious ways in which life propagates itself.

Above all, it’s a story about faith – faith in one’s part in a whole that cannot be seen, and faith in a collective purpose that one can never realize alone.

As Morgan Harper Nichols said, “The monarch butterfly migration is a reminder of what it means to pave the way. To carry on on a journey that you might not actually live to see the end of.”

The monarch butterflies’ migration can serve as a beautiful metaphor for the journey of human progress. We humans, like the butterflies, are collectively on an epic journey advanced forward by one generation after another, one individual after another. Each one can only know and fulfil their own part of the journey, just one in a seemingly infinite number of steps, but each one of them is instrumental to the direction of the whole. The fate of all depends on the fate of one.

Hilary Clinton, former presidential candidate, Secretary of State, and First Lady of the US, wrote in her book Hard Choices that running a government was like a relay race. Each administration and each government official receives the baton from the predecessor and runs with it for a while before passing it on to the next. Each one is to do her own part, no more and no less, and to see one’s own part in the context of the whole is both humbling and empowering.

And there is room for everyone. There is room for those who lead in the front, or the back or the sides, and there is room for those who run fast and hard, or slow and steady. There is even room for the doubters who don’t believe in the journey at all, or the rebels who try to undermine the whole thing, because that’s how the group constantly checks itself and grows stronger over time.

What the world needs from each of us, each butterfly and each human, is for us to fully and wholeheartedly play our individual roles in the grand play of life. We each get to receive the baton, carry it across the mountains and valleys of our own life, and then hand it on to the next fellow, as best as we can. No matter how small or insignificant one individual may seem, everyone is indispensable to the larger race we are running together. Each brick in the yellow brick road leads to the next, and the next, and the next.

And what will be at the end of the road? Perhaps a humbled demigod telling us that it was all an illusion after all, or the realization that the journey itself was the point. Or perhaps there will simply be a tiny baby butterfly, unfolding its wings to take to the skies again.


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