The lesson of the Question Mark

Question Mark Butterfly

Question Mark Butterfly

Our experiences in life have a profound impact on our beliefs, because experience will always trump belief when it can’t be explained otherwise. The same applies when the explanation isn’t convincing or is dismissive of the experience. My favorite though is when the catch-all logic is “coincidence” is argued by those who have no better answer. This has always been my difficulty with science and its pedantic dependence on known facts. If there was just a little wiggle room, I think we’d all be better off. Of course, humankind’s need for order would be in shambles if that was the case, because chaos remains order’s mortal enemy.

I’m going to make a point here about something that happened to me many years ago that left me questioning everything I believed about the cycle of life and life’s beings. This is going to be hard to swallow for some, but hey, I’m an old guy who doesn’t really care what people think anymore. But first, a little contemporary background is needed.

So let’s begin with a couple of stories that have been in the news lately. One is the bold proclamation that science has finally figured out how monarch butterflies know where they’re going when they migrate. To review, monarchs overwinter in specific locations in Mexico every year. They leave the milkweed patches of, let’s say, Michigan, fly to their winter location in the Autumn and return, even to the same milkweed patch, in the Spring. These butterflies then breed and die. The new brood also breeds and dies. The next brood (or sometimes a third) will take up wing and return to the very same trees in Mexico.

Of course, this seems preposterous to the scientific mind, so experts have been studying it for many, many decades. And now reporter Victoria Gill’s headline for the BBC emphatically declares, “Great monarch butterfly migration mystery solved:”

Lead researcher Prof Eli Shlizerman, from the University of Washington, explained that, as a mathematician, he wants to know how neurobiological systems are wired and what rules we can learn from them.

“Monarch butterflies [complete their journey] in such an optimal, predetermined way,” he told BBC News.

“They end up in a particular location in Central Mexico after two months of flight, saving energy and only using a few cues.”

Prof Shlizerman worked with biologist colleagues, including Steven Reppert at the University of Massachusetts, to record directly from neurons in the butterflies’ antennae and eyes.

“We identified that the input cues depend entirely on the Sun,” explained Prof Shlizerman.

“One is the horizontal position of the Sun and the other is keeping the time of day.

“This gives [the insects] an internal Sun compass for traveling southerly throughout the day.”

Wow! Who knew, right? This conclusion is exactly what I mean about that lack of wiggle room, for based on what science knows about life, the migration of the monarchs has to be cued in ways that we can understand. Hence, the sun, because, well, the butterflies require some form of navigation. The professor wants to build a robotic monarch that tracks the real thing throughout the entire migration. The BBC article is pretty bold in its proclamations, but other reports of the findings are laced with disclaimers like “might,” “could,” or “maybe.”

Nobody would even think to suggest that these butterflies already know the way, because they’ve been making the same trip since the earliest winters of North America. But that’s impossible, right, for these are “different” individual butterflies.

Now let’s move to another story in the news recently, about the progeny of Holocaust survivors who seem to carry the trauma of their ancestors. From the Guardian’s report “Study of Holocaust survivors finds trauma passed on to children’s genes:”

The conclusion from a research team at New York’s Mount Sinai hospital led by Rachel Yehuda stems from the genetic study of 32 Jewish men and women who had either been interned in a Nazi concentration camp, witnessed or experienced torture or who had had to hide during the second world war.

They also analysed the genes of their children, who are known to have increased likelihood of stress disorders, and compared the results with Jewish families who were living outside of Europe during the war. “The gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents,” said Yehuda.

Her team’s work is the clearest example in humans of the transmission of trauma to a child via what is called “epigenetic inheritance” – the idea that environmental influences such as smoking, diet and stress can affect the genes of your children and possibly even grandchildren.

The article points out that the topic is controversial, and it poses the fascinating albeit perplexing question, “Can you inherit a memory of trauma?” Fun stuff, eh?

To human beings, life is linear process. We exist inside the dimensions of time and distance, and therefore are subject to the rules that govern them. Does all life exist as such? Even our understanding of things around us is based on this, which is why we feel such a strong need to anthropomorphize everything under the sun, even God. The accepted human narrative is based entirely on this linear focus, until one begins to stick one’s hand into the dark matter of theoretical chaos or even that which appears practically chaotic. And what about matters psychological or spiritual or, oh my, the things of the soul? Science stays away, because, this is the stuff of unscience, myth, and superstition.

Can you inherit a memory of trauma or is it just there? Can monarch butterflies find their way to Mexico and back without a map or guidance system?

Permit me to digress for a moment. In the Biblical story of Abraham, there was a “priest of the most high God” named Melchizedek. This was before God had revealed Himself to humankind through Abraham, so the guy is pretty interesting although we know so very little about him. He’s identified as “king of Salem” and we know he fed Abraham. We also know that Abraham paid a tithe to him as a priest, and this is significant for Christianity. In Psalm 110, which is regarded as Messianic by both Christian and Jewish scholars, David writes (of the Messiah), “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” So David justifies the priesthood of the Messiah by referencing the guy to which Abraham paid a tithe, which was way before any Abrahamic priesthood was established. Therefore, Melchizedek’s priesthood is “higher.” In citing this reference in his letter to the Hebrews, the writer (perhaps Paul) makes this statement:

A person might even say that Levi [the father of the priestly tribe] himself, who received tithes, paid tithes through Abraham [the father of all Israel and of all who believe], for Levi was still in the loins (unborn) of his forefather [Abraham] when Melchizedek met him (Abraham). Amplified Bible

This is fascinating to weigh and consider. It feeds my imagination and demands further exploration. What if mysteries of linear life can be explained by Life that isn’t linear? One that exists outside the confines of time and distance, where everything can take place at the same time and in the same place?

As George Carlin used to say, “These are the kinds of thoughts that kept me out of the good schools.”

Which brings me finally to the story I wish to share with you today.

I moved to Louisville in 1979 to work for WHAS-TV and spent two years there. It was the best of times in that I’d scored my first full-time on-air job as host and producer of PM Magazine. It was the worst of times in that my relationship with Eileen was being tested severely. I was also drifting back into a lifestyle that wasn’t healthy for me or the relationship, and I was pretty much adrift. In the summer of 1980, I was in trouble deep inside, and I felt helpless to do anything about it.

1980 - Climbing aboard my finger

1980 – Climbing aboard my finger

This picture reveals what happened one summer day that year. A Questionmark butterfly landed on the railing of our apartment and just sat their. Questionmarks are smallish rusty brown butterflies with a silver mark on the back side of its wings in the shape of a question mark. These butterflies are normally quite skittish, but this little guy was VERY friendly and exhibited a strange habit. He’d fly off the balcony, do a clockwise circle around the lamppost closest to us, then jump and do a clockwise circle around the other lamppost, and fly up to the peak of the roof of the building across the courtyard from ours. He’d sit there for awhile and then scoot back to our balcony. He would crawl onto my finger before repeating his little act.

The next day, I was out sunbathing, and he returned and landed on my chest. He then proceeded to jump off the balcony and repeat his circling of the lampposts, flying to the roof opposite ours, and return to the balcony, landing again on my chest. This went on for a few days, and then he was gone.

In the weeks that followed, I had a dramatic born-again experience and threw myself head-first into study and writing music for a Christian band across the Ohio River in Southern Indiana. It was an Autumn, Winter, and Spring that was unforgettable. Life got much better, and I began to question my career in media as I was being recruited to work for a large Christian ministry. Then something very strange happened.

I was out in the sun on our balcony in the summer of 1981 when a small orange-brown butterfly hovered over the balcony and landed on my chest. It was a Question Mark, and it sat there opening and closing its wings as I laid there stunned. I laughed and said, “Well, hello there, fellow. Did you come back to see me?”

At that moment, the butterfly leaped into the air, made a clockwise circle around one lamppost and then the other, and then shot up to the peak of the roof across the courtyard and sat there for a few moments before jumping back into the sky and racing back across to my chest. I was absolutely stunned, and I encouraged him to climb onto my finger. I stood up and walked to the railing. He jumped off my finger and repeated the exact same acrobatics. This went on for awhile, and then he was gone. I’ve never since felt quite as connected with the universe as I was that day. And I still marvel about what happened in an event that defies any logical explanation other than “it was merely a coincidence.”

I don’t think so, and I firmly believe this was a messenger from a higher place sent to assure me that everything would be just fine – and it was. I want to add that Question Marks appeared two other times in my life as I was going through difficult decisions. Of course, I wasn’t in Louisville anymore, so these events could actually have been coincidental, even though one was inside my garage above my workbench, just sitting there on the wall opening and closing its wings.

But nothing can explain the airborne dance of the butterfly at the Louisville apartment complex. It couldn’t have been the same butterfly, or could it have been? They don’t live that long, so perhaps this was a relative who somehow “inherited” the same trait. Well, cough-cough, that’s not possible either, so perhaps we’re simply all trapped in the Matrix, and there’s no such thing as “new” broods of Question Mark butterflies. Maybe they all just repeat the same habits that they gained in previous seasons of doing their thing? Nah. Too “out there.”

Or maybe not. Perhaps those two butterflies – if they were really two – were brushed by the spirit of the Creator to minister to me during times of need. Nah, that’s ridiculous.

The truth is I just don’t know. Nobody does. But isn’t it odd that we’re thinking that the progeny of those who survived Auschwitz inherit the trauma of their parents? Maybe it’s because they were there with them (in their loins) and actually experienced the real thing. Isn’t it odd that scientists now say the Monarchs are guided by the sun? Maybe they know the way, because they’ve been there before. Folks, the reality is we know squat when it comes to this stuff. We placate our imaginations with science, but the secret things belong to God.

And you’re either okay with that, or you’re not.

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