Last updated: June 21, 2019
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Rebirth

“The Butterfly Lovers” is a Chinese legend about the tragic romance between two lovers, Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai. The legend is often regarded as the Chinese equivalent to Romeo and Juliet. A young woman named Zhu Yingtai has disguised herself as a man travelling to Hangzhou to study. During her journey, she meets and joins Liang Shanbo, a companion schoolmate from Kuaiji. Almost immediately after they meet, the two become very good friends and spend a lot of time together both in and out of classes. Three years pass in which Liang is still unaware that his school friend is actually a girl who has long had a crush on him. One day, she receives a letter from her father warning her to return home. Liang escorts her all the way, still not knowing that “he” was a girl even though she had given many hints that she had fallen madly in love with him. However, their relationship has been strengthened in the past three years; it is clear that have become not only best friends, but soulmates. When Liang travels to Zhu’s home, he discovers her true gender. Although they are devoted and passionate about each other at that point, Zhu is already engaged to another man, a man her parents have arranged for her to marry. Depressed, Liang kills himself. On the day Zhu is to be married to the other man, Zhu also commits suicide. The ending of this story suggests, however, that in their next life, they become a pair of butterflies: they emerge from the tomb and fly away. Because they become butterflies, they find their own happiness though the rebirth.

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It is reincarnation that gives “the butterfly lovers” a chance to continue their life and love. The idea of reincarnation has been around for a long time and can be identified in the ideologies and religions of many different cultures. Reincarnation speaks of death and rebirth. In ancient Greek and Roman culture, souls are purified in the underworld for 1000 years, after which they drink the waters of forgetfulness so that they might return to life fresh and pure (Book VI, The Aeneid of Virgil). This idea of reincarnation, which grants the belief that people lived many previous lives and that there are many more to come, is a very attractive perspective from which to consider the meaning of life. Reincarnation provides people with the possibility of being granted a “new start” and a “new life” after real death. It is an opportunity to break through the confines and restrictions of death and into the realms of immortality. However, Leonard Kriegel has offered a new slant on the idea of gaining “new life.” This famous novelist, short story writer, essayist and retired professor of English from the City College of New York relates in his essay “Falling into Life” that “In the falling, I had given myself a new start, a new life” (302). It introduces the question of how Kriegel can consider himself to have had a new beginning of life through “falling?” Can people be reborn without real death?

An interesting question to ask is if strong experiences possess the power to transform a life. It is sometimes the case that something very sad or shocking has the ability to do that to a person. Sometimes, it can be something beautiful and simple like the first really warm day in spring. Whatever the reason, the person who experiences the transformative act realizes or suddenly possesses a new outlook on life. That person comes to understand something about him-/herself or about what he/she wants out of life that had never been before realized. This is what Kriegel expresses in his essay. In “Falling into life,” he reveals that such a transformation had been effected in his life. Although Kriegel didn’t actually die, his experiences were poignant and they changed him. This conversion was, to him, akin to a rebirth.

Kriegel unluckily became the victim of a polio epidemic when he was 11 years old. Since then, he has lost the use of his legs. During the treatment, he went through many difficult tasks: being submerged in a hot pool for many times a day, swallowing nasty salt after each immersion and so forth. But nothing was more difficult than falling: “Falling into life was not a metaphor; it was real, a process learned only through doing, the way a baby learns to crawl, to stand, and then to walk” (390). Kriegel understood the meaning of “falling into life,” as he knew that his fall from grace was permanent. But he was still grateful to no one. Kriegel couldn’t fall and forget about his normal past. The question arises as to why Kriegel felt the need to resist falling. If “falling” could have helped Kriegel move on to a “new start” and “new life”, why would Kriegel not be eager to fall immediately? Yet, a parallel can be drawn to people’s tendency to resist death as a vast and unknown dimension. Since the result of Kriegel’s experience is one that might be considered in light of a rebirth, the idea of falling might also be seen as similar to the idea of death. Because of the fear of falling, he was unable to simply let go.

This similarity between death and experience can be seen through the Virgil’s treatment of death in his Aeneid. According to the idea of reincarnation from ancient Creek and Roman culture, dead souls cannot be reborn until they drink the waters of forgetfulness (Book VI, The Aeneid of Virgil). Forgetting the past is one of the most critical factors for beginning a “new life”. Aeneas, in Virgil’s Aeneid, Book IV, in order to become the father of the new Roman race, has to forget about everything in his past: the fall of his country, Troy; his dead father and lover, and his former wife. Virgil causes Aeneas to travel to the underworld which, according to Greek and Roman mythology, is the home of the dead souls or shades. In the process, he meets many people who lived both good and bad lives and from this he learns the things that really do matter in life. This new insight leads to the “death” of Aeneas’s old, regretful self (Book VI, The Aeneid of Virgil).

Even with all the hardships during the treatment, Kriegel had never stopped thinking about the past, and never forgot about his normal life. He imagined hope, a hope to return as a normal person: “I organized my needs around whatever illusions were available. And the illusion I needed above any other was that one morning I would simply wake up and rediscover the ‘normal’ boy of memory, once again playing baseball in French Charley’s Field in Bronx Park rather than roaming the fields of his own imagination” (389). Kriegel’s memory became imagination which gave him hope, but prevented him from facing the reality, from realizing his purpose for being. In His essay, “Thoughts on the Souls and Reincarnation,” Tristan Arts writes, “Remembering everything of all those lives would defeat the purpose of being here in the first place. We’ve come here to forget and strive to remember, so that we may appreciate the knowledge our souls have.” Kriegel’s determination to remember the past was a barrier to the development of his new birth that would catalyze his future. Instead, Kriegel’s memory also fueled in him a fear of falling: “I flushed, swallowed hard, struggled to keep from crying, struggled not to be overwhelmed by my fear of falling” (390). He was afraid of falling because he was afraid of facing the future, as he did not know what would lie ahead of him.

Kriegel experiences a terror similar to that which is experienced by the dead souls in the Virgil’s underworld. The desire of dead souls to be reborn grows stronger everyday, but sometimes the souls are afraid, nervous, or doubtful about rebirth. After souls are reborn, they must relearn the whole process of living and growing (Marcus Clark). Kriegel and those souls are have a fear of the future because of the “emptiness” or the void that it represents. It is a void about which they have no knowledge and no idea how to handle: “But I was being asked to surrender myself to the emptiness of space, to let go and crash down to the mats below, to feel myself suspended in air when nothing stood between me and the vacuum of the world” (391). This is similar to the void that death represents to the living being, and this was the prospect that scared Kriegel. But no matter how much fear dead souls have, they have to be reborn in order to live another life. In order for Kriegel to get rid of his “dead soul,” he had to perform the action that was equivalent to “letting go” of his fear. He had to face and accept his new status as an abnormal person and to start his new life. All of those decisions constitute the action of “falling into life”.

Kriegel’s terror kept him away from gracefulness. Although he could not “let go” of the terror so easily, he also would not allow himself to be bullied out of terror. This continued for a whole month that included, “Daily excursions to the rehab room, daily practice runs though the future that was awaiting me…and then terror simply evaporated” (392). Kriegel finally “let it go.” The success of falling opened a new page in Kriegel’s life, and caused him to be reborn. Although Kriegel never really died, he did live like a dead soul in the underworld, because he would have had no future had he not tried to face his new life. He admits, “It was as if I had served enough time in that prison. I was ready to move on” (392) Kriegel’s falling made him able to overcome his fear and allow himself to accept reality. Then falling did, in a sense, become “an end in itself” (393), because old Kriegel finally died after falling. The “letting go” lead him to rebirth.

Kriegel’s rebirth allows him another chance to hold on to his life. But whether his life will turn out to be normal or abnormal will depend on how he faces it, and how he lives it. His rebirth is reminiscent of the episode in Virgil’s Aeneid that contains Anchises of the underworld, who is the dead father of Aeneas. Anchises shows Aeneas the parade of great Romans who will be born in the future and tells him that Rome will be an empire that lasts forever. All those foresights Anchises shows to Aeneas motivates him to become a more determined leader for the future of the Rome. Aeneas realizes that without his establishment of Roman race all those great people would not be born and there would not ever be a Roman empire. It is this short journey to the underworld that causes the old uncertain Aeneas (whose heart is stuck in ruined Troy) to die and to come back the new, determined Aeneas, committed to Italy and its future (Book VI, The Aeneid of Virgil). This is possibly the kind of death to which Kriegel goes, and the kind of rebirth that he might expect if he lets go of the past completely. The end of The Aeneid of Virgil is very telling. Virgil makes Aeneas leave the underworld by a door of a false dream. However, is it just a dream? It may actually turn out to be true or false depending on what Aeneas does with it, and Virgil may be reminding his readers that though certain things might be fated, they still depend on human effort to make them happen. In this way, Kriegel’s effort at letting go becomes a pertinent and decisive part of his destiny.

The word “effort” is defined by Merriam-Webster online dictionary as: “conscious exertion of power: hard work; something produced by exertion or trying; the total work done to achieve a particular end.” After Aeneas’ underworld trip, he makes the effort to fight hard for the future of Italy, and he finally establishes the new Roman race. And like Aeneas, Kriegel also made his effort for his life too. He prevailed over terror and began his new life after falling. Kriegel’s disability did not prevent his to becoming a famous writer. Yet, just like Aeneas could not have won battles and established the new Roman race without the aid of all the soldiers fighting beside him, so Kriegel could not have had the “new start” and the “new life” without the help of those who coached and taught him. Human effort is essential for achieving goals, but no one can live without others’ care, love and help. It is the sum total of all the effort of all humans that constitutes the use that the race makes of its time on earth. All humans live in a grand society called Earth, and all people need at times to share their problems with others, especially when they feel helpless or are unable to cope with the enormity of a task. People cannot achieve their goals without others’ help because no one person is capable of all the effort necessary to get the large jobs done. Kriegel was the victim of unlucky circumstances that caused him to become physically handicapped. However, after his legs became useless, he still received a lot of positive effort from friends in the ward, and especially the therapist who helped him to grow up. He writes, “She wanted to teach me a wholeness I could not give myself. For she knew that mine would be a future so different from what confronts the “normal” that I had to learn to fall into life in order not to be overwhelmed”(393). Kriegel could not have gone through the “falling” episode without the help and the teaching from the therapist. The efforts of his community played a significant role Kriegel’s conversion.

In her essay “Many Rivers to Cross,” June Jordon also shows us how the aid of the community turn out to be is much broader and stronger than the effort of the single human being. After her husband leaves her for another woman and her mother commits suicide, Jordan has no time to learn to accept the change of her life. The only choice for her is to move on. She needs to find a job to make enough money for herself and her son to survive. Jordan’s circumstance can be contrasted to Kriegel’s. While her misfortune stemmed from a loss of community, Kriegel was able to sustain his community throughout his misfortune. Furthermore, she has no time to think, and no time to learn before falling into her “new life”. Within a helpless realm she began her new life “as a mother without a husband, as a poet without a publisher, a freelance journalist without assignment, a city planner without a contract” (355). Though Jordan was alone without time and money, it turns out that she is not as lonely as she thought. A woman, Mrs. Griffin, warms her heart by taking care of her though all the difficult times. Not only does Jordan get help from Mrs. Griffin, but she also gets help from women at a church. They help her plan her mother’s funeral. Plus, her cousin Valerie really takes care of her while she is in the hospital after the fight with her father. All those people in Jordan’s community give support for her “falling into life.” Most importantly, however, they make her realize “the mercy and the grace of women’s work” (361). These circumstances point toward a further concern that must be noted here: though human effort does play a key role in the behavior of each individual woman who helps Jordan, it is the aid of the community that gives the greatest definition to human effort.

Thirty-eight years later, after a fall that left Kriegel with the knowledge that he could no longer pick himself up, he is possessed by a peculiar passion: “I want to believe that my life has been balanced out” (387) Can any human being ’s life be balanced out? It might be considered that if life were symmetrical, Kriegel would not have become a cripple and gone through the experience of “falling into life.” If life were symmetrical, Jordan would not have become a single mother having a difficult time finding a job, and unable to attend her mother’s funeral because she had to stay at the hospital for several days after hemorrhaging and going through an abortion. If life were symmetrical, “The butterfly lovers” would not have to die to be together.

Sadly but certainly, life is asymmetrical. As human beings, people all have their own personal imbalances that they seek to make symmetrical, but do people really need symmetry in life? Kriegel could not change the fact that he had contracted polio, so he accepted his unfortunate fate and moved on with his life. From falling, he gave himself the endurance he would need to survive in this world and recognized “a strange but potentially interesting new self” (394). With all the hardships, Jordan still claimed: “I wanted to be strong. I never wanted to be weak again as long as I lived…I want to live my life so that people would know unmistakably that I am alive, so that will know the difference for sure between my living and my death” (360). People who never struggle to the degree as Kriegel and Jordan did may never have the same level of understanding of life. But one thing people can all agree on is that no one is able to go though life without their own efforts. Kriegel learned the most essential of American lessons: “How to turn incapacity into capacity” (393); Jordan spoke about how women should live their lives in the future: “That new women’s work will mean we will not die trying to stand up: we will live that way: standing up” (361). Aeneas fought to win many battles for his new race, and “The butterfly lovers” reincarnated to be together forever. After all, who will say life has to be symmetrical? All efforts people put into life are far greater and more significant than symmetry. Best of all, no one is needs to fight alone though the battle of life. People love as pairs, work as communities, live as nations, and make global efforts as a world. People know “how to turn incapacity to capacity” not only as Americans, but as human beings. Only human effort can achieve this goal, and only united human efforts can break through the darkness of death and misfortune to the light and of a new and better life for all.

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Bibliography

Kriegel, Leonard. “Falling into Life” Encounters: Essays for Exploration and Inquiry. Ed. Pat C. Hoy II, Robert Di Yanni. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000. 386-397

Jordan, June. “Many Rivers to Cross” Encounters: Essays for Exploration and Inquiry. Ed. Pat C. Hoy II, Robert Di Yanni. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000. 354-361

Arts, Tristan. “Thoughts on the Soul and Reincarnation” Real Magick the Occult library Tristan Arts ;bopy; 1999 and 2001. ; http://realmagick.com/articles/05/2105.html;

Valea, Ernest. “Reincarnation, Its meaning and consequences” World Religions Comparative Analysis copyright 1999 -2006.;http://www.comparativereligion.com/reincarnation.html;

Virgil. “The Aeneid of Virgil” A verse Translation by Allen Mandelbaum. Bantam Books (A Bantam Classic), 1971. 131-160

Clark, Marcus “Reincarnation” August, 2003.

;http://www.marcus-clark.com/path/reincarnation.html;

“Effort”. Merriam – Webster online dictionary ;http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/effort;

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