Murray Stein: Three Butterfly Stories


One of the best writers about the world of Jungian thought is Murray Stein.

He has written a number of excellent books:

The Principle of Individuation
Jung’s Map of the Soul
Jungian Analysis
Jung’s Treatment of Christianity
In Midlife
Practicing Wholeness
Transformation Emergence of the Self
Solar Conscience Lunar Conscience

In the biography section of his website, he relates the following stories:

This is life on the border between worlds – between ego and unconscious, between causal and acausal relations, between a scientific and a spiritual Weltanschauung.

I will tell you three brief butterfly stories to illustrate this. The first two involve former analysands, and the third concerns an analyst colleague and close friend. All three relationships were of a deep quality that touched more than once on the levels I am talking about here, the synchronistic.

Magda was in her eighties when she died. For ten years prior to her death, she could not walk, so I visited her where she lived occasionally. Before that, for about five years, she had seen me in my office to discuss her dreams and emotional life. After she could no longer walk, she would say to me, quite seriously, but with a twinkle: “When I die and go to heaven, the first thing I want to do is kick up my heels and dance.” She missed her legs which had previously been strong and able under her. When Magda died, my wife and I attended her funeral. Driving home, I noticed something fluttering around in the rear window of the car. My wife looked back and exclaimed, “It’s a butterfly.” I opened the windows to let the butterfly out, but of course it would not leave. When we got home, it was nearly dark, and my wife put her hand in the back of the car to get the butterfly to leave. Instead the small brown winged insect hopped to her hand and stayed there. We walked over to the street lamp to look at it more closely. (By this time we were calling the butterfly Magda, and were enjoying her mischievous company.) Suddenly the butterfly flew down to the sidewalk, and, as we watched, it began to dance energetically in circles, hopping occasionally to one or another of our feet. How could we not think that this was Magda, now with legs, in heaven, dancing freely and with abandon as she had hoped she would?

A second butterfly story. An analysand with whom I had worked for many years, who had fought cancer more or less successfully for a long time but had finally succumbed and died, had lived her last years in the closest relation to the archetypal images of the psyche. Her dreams and active imagination had given her great courage to face death with acceptance, finally, and also remarkable assurance that she was being securely held by a comforter much greater than any human presence. She had been one of the most alive and vital people I have ever known – full of energy, fun, and zest for life. As she declined, these qualities of her personality remained, even as her body became grossly distorted and faded away. Two weeks after her funeral, her daughter called to tell the following story. Her pen pal since childhood, a woman from Sweden, had just telephoned and told her that she had just received the card announcing her mother’s recent death. She was sitting in her garden when she opened the letter, and just as she was reading it, a gorgeous butterfly landed on the card and sat there. Of course she was astonished. How could it have chosen such a tiny place to light upon? Then it flew to her arm and rested there for a few minutes. Suddenly, she said, she realized what this meant. “It was your mother. I’m sure of it,” she cried over the phone. “So colorful, so beautiful, just like your mother. And so alive.” These were the telltale markings of this remarkable woman.

Finally, one more story, this one about my friend Kaspar who died a couple of years ago, also of cancer. I learned of his death by email from a mutual friend in Zurich. His death was surprising, and it was not – he had fought valiantly against the spreading cancer for four years. He died on Monday morning in his home, quietly and peacefully. I received the email first thing on Tuesday morning and told my wife a few hours later when she arrived at the office. “Well, you won’t believe what happened at home this morning,” she said a while later when the shock of the news about Kaspar had worn off a little. “I was in the back yard and saw something I’ve never seen there or anywhere else ever before. Thousands of butterflies were hovering around the hawthorn tree back there. It was like an undulating swarm, rising and falling in the branches. Thousands of orange butterflies.”

“Just like Kaspar,” I said later. “He always brought us a huge bouquet of colorful flowers from his garden.”

I told this story to our friend Sonja when I talked to her later in the day. She filled me in on some details of Kaspar’s last weeks and days – of a final trip to his beloved Venice, of a ride around Lake Zurich with a friend on Friday, of telling his children that he had received word that the cancer had spread to his heart and nothing more could be done medically, of enjoying a bottle of wine with his brother-in-law on Saturday night. About the bouquet of butterflies in our tree, just outside the room where Kaspar had spent a week when he was in Chicago for the IAAP Congress in 1992, Sonja said: “Well that belongs to the story too, somehow, doesn’t it?” Sonja, now in her eighties, is another person who has lived her life as a Jungian. It takes one to understand one.

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One Response to Murray Stein: Three Butterfly Stories

  1. Dear Dr. Stein: do you know Vladimir Nabokov’s very beautiful novel “Pale Fire”? I’m thinking especially of the end, the sporting about of the butterfly who is certainly, somehow, the transformed daughter, who died a suicide early in the poem-novel. I sometimes think Nabokov was onto something of the insights of Jung, without (of course) being Jungian… or even psychological in any technical sense. My wife and I lost our 32 year old daughter Melissa about 5 years ago. There are certain experiences in psychology and literature that we hold on to. By the way, we are friends of Penelope Youngblut Ewing, were at the Zurich seminar two years ago, and hope to attend the one in October. Best regards, Ira Kirschbaum

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