When I was perhaps two or three years old, I went to a park in Tennessee (or perhaps Connecticut) with my parents. It was butterfly season, and there were little orange things flying around everywhere. Being the toddler that I was, I was at optimal grass height to inspect and chase these butterflies as I so chose.
One butterfly strayed too near to me and hovered for too long. I say “too near” and “too long” because the notion occurred to my younger self that I could keep the butterfly in place by stepping on it; then it couldn’t fly away. So I stepped on the butterfly. One of my parents said to me, “Why did you do that?”
I learned immediately not why I had done it, that still baffles me to this day, but instead what I had done.
I made the butterfly not fly.
The formulation of that very simple idea was actually quite complicated. Any number of interpretations could have been given to what happened to that butterfly as a result of my action, but if I were to look nakedly at what the experience of that realization felt like, it was very simple and very concrete. I made the butterfly not fly.
It is inherent in the nature of a living butterfly to fly. “Fly” is even in the name, and I forced a categorical transition upon this one butterfly and made it not fly. This forms my first and most basic understanding of what it meant to kill something. To kill something is to make it not what it is anymore.
Dying then becomes the transformation from being something that is into something that isn’t. An inseparable quality of the definition of any living thing is that it lives, and if it should die, it suffers an irreversible redefinition into something that does not live.
I was horrified.
My first inclination, after stepping on the butterfly and my subsequent realization of the significance of that action, was to apologize to the butterfly for stepping on it. Here, I learned that you cannot apologize to something that has died, especially for killing it. It isn’t alive anymore to receive or accept your apology, and the possibility for forgiveness is lost forever.
Death is irrevocable.
These are two very heavy truths to digest for a still-forming consciousness. Three years old is still within the bounds of learning the mechanics of language, understanding the separation between self and others, coming to terms with “yours” and “mine”. I understood myself as a murderer before I was potty trained, and this sparked what has so far been a lifelong obsession with the notion that one day, you and I and everything we know and love will die and be gone forever.