Yellow Butterfly: A Moving Wordless Story About War, Hope, and Keeping the Light Alive
By Maria Popova
In his little-known correspondence with Freud about war and human nature, Einstein observed that every great moral and spiritual leader in the history of our civilization has shared “the great goal of the internal and external liberation of man* from the evils of war” as Freud insisted that the more we understand human psychology, the more we can “deduce a formula for an indirect method of eliminating war.” In her timeless treatise on the building blocks of peace, the pioneering crystallographer and peace activist Kathleen Lonsdale located that formula in the moral education of our young — in teaching children, who are both the most vulnerable victims of war and the soldiers of the future, “at whatever cost not to give way to wrong or to co-operate in it.”
My grandmother was a child in Bulgaria when the bombs of WWII rained down upon her and her three siblings, seeding into her marrow a lifetime of paralyzing anxiety that to this day never leaves her — not even in the safest of circumstances, not even with the sanest of her engineer’s reasoning. These scars that war leaves on the souls of children are a living testament to the great cellist Pablo Casals’s insistence that our primary motive force for ending violence should be “to make this world worthy of its children.”
We enter a world of darkness and barbed wire, a world of which a frightened little girl is trying to make sense.
Running in terror from the bombs raining down upon her, she suddenly encounters a bright yellow butterfly.
As she goes on walking alongside the barbed wire — a haunting visual metaphor for how the terror of war constricts a life — the butterfly becomes her guide in the survival of the soul, gently flitting back and forth through the openings, its flight-path a promise of freedom, a promise of light.
Then another butterfly appears, and another, and another, until the constellation of them spreads across the land, alighting on the soldiers in the trenches, on the children at the playground, on the fallen bombs.
The butterflies multiply and multiply, becoming a great conflagration that illuminates the little girl’s face with the light of possibility, a great murmuration that wings her with hope.
So transformed, she gazes upon her war-torn homeland and pictures it sunlit with peace, blue-skied with freedom.
Couple Yellow Butterfly with The Scar — a tender illustrated meditation on loss and healing — then revisit Rebecca Solnit’s classic on hope in dark times and the stirring letter John Steinbeck wrote at the peak of WWII about what redeems the eternal struggle of good and evil.
Published October 19, 2023