Lightning Bugs and Fireflies: Lessons from Tiny Light-Bearers

This time of year I am entranced with the lights behind our house that have signaled summer since I was a small child. Then we, the children in the row home neighborhood in Baltimore City where I grew up, would take our quart jars with punched holes in their metal lids, fill them with some grass in the bottom, and go catch lightnin’ bugs! It was a wonderful sport that stretched from twilight to full dark, or until our moms called us home. Akin to catching dandelion wishes in the spring, it always seemed to me that we were reaching for magic, and expected it to bless us.

Once a few lightning bugs were captured, we’d sit and look at our jars full of flashing lights. It didn’t take forever to notice that if you left them in there too long, despite our dads’ punched air holes, the magic flying bugs would die. And so, the end of any evening, when childhood’s scatteredness did not distract us into forgetting them for games of tag or hide and seek, included releasing them. I liked to do that one by one, carefully letting one crawl out on my hand (or shaking one there!) and then tossing it into the air and watching it grab the current and fly, at first a little crookedly, away. On nights when I forgot my jar for other entertainments, and it filled with largely deceased light-bearers in the morning, I mourned them. They deserved my care and attention, since they graced the night and were willing to be held however briefly in my own spell.

It’s June, and as they visit this time zone once more, my mind has rested lightly in awareness of them. I have done a little reading about them, to feed my relaxed attention. And I find the wonder is not diminished by the prose I find. There are possible learnings from these little visitors. Maybe a “Top 10 list” or a “Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned from Fireflies” kind of take? Perhaps my reflections are not that ambitious. But still, these are some thoughts these light bearers prompt, and perhaps some wisdom for our lives.

  • FIREFLIES IN LARVAL STAGE HIBERNATE IN WINTER, SOMETIMES FOR YEARS.  It is good for children – or all of us in moments of beginnings – to find safe places to rest as we grow.  Doing so will help us be all we can in maturity.  We need space, hiddenness, rest, in order to become.
  • LIGHTNING BUGS ARE BEETLES – YUK!  I can’t stand bugs, but I love these summer friends.  Even beetles can be beautiful.  And we too are beautiful, no matter, and precisely because of, the roots of our identity.
  • POTENTIAL PARTNER FIREFLIES ENGAGE IN A FLASHING COMMUNICATION THAT RANGES FROM A SINGLE FLASH TO MULTI-PHASE FLASHES TO A CONTINUOUS GLOW.  When we find people in life that we wish to spend more time with, we usually recognize something about the way they carry the light are and we are attracted.  Subsequently, our own light-bearing may change due to our relating.
  • FIREFLIES ARE NOCTURNAL.  I can’t resist.  YAY for night people!  (Mornings are for rest!)  More seriously, fireflies show up when their light will be most beautiful.  Imagine the moon during the day – it sometimes shows, but is lost in the sun’s bright upstaging.  The tiny flickering bugs know that context matters.  And so it does for us.  Where and when do we most shine in our brightest glory?  And living there may be the place from which we can best inspire, tutor, encourage, be the light we are!
  • LIGHTNING BUGS ARE DISTASTEFUL AND SOMETIMES POISONOUS TO PREDATORS.  Sometimes the ‘perfume’ we put out just be being true to who we are is enough to bat back those who would be destructive to us…  we simply need to be more and more of who we are.  Psalm 37 puts it, “Be not vexed, it will only harm you.” What trouble will come, will come.  To our own makeup, our Creator’s design – to this we must be true.  The rest is about living light, and trust.
  • LIGHTNING BUGS’ LIGHT IS BIOLUMINSCENT.  Their lighting up is built into their very biology, and is no technique.  We are created to be bioluminescent too.  Our very being bears light.  This is true for all of us.  An interesting more physical reflection – how do our bodies do this?  How do we recover, in a society both increasingly health conscious and increasingly ill in preventable ways, a sense of being embodied in a ‘light’ way?  Where do we find the energy to allow our bodies to teach us how they too can shine?
  • FIREFLY LIGHT IS THE MOST EFFICIENT LIGHT IN THE WORLD.  100% of the energy is emitted as light (fyi: incandescent bulbs are at 10% with the rest as heat, fluorescent at 90%).  Here we may find a two way invitation - to integrity and commitment.  Be only and all what and who you are, and give all when you give.  These two ways of being will produce wonderful light for you and the world.
  • LIGHT POLLUTION CAN DECIMATE LIGHTNING BUGS.  Lightning bugs use light to communicate, and this light must be seen by potential mates.  When they are in settings where their light doesn’t show up - well, it’s not good.  There are ‘givens’ that must be in place for communication, and overwhelming extremes in our environment are destructive.  Perhaps we need to think about the various pollution around us – light, noise, ‘stuff’, clutter, arguments, polarizing statements.  You name more!  How does it affect our communicating, our relationships?  What do we need to be free of to grow?  We can turn out our backyard lights to help the lightning bugs.  What needs turning down or off in our contemporary world?  In your life and mine?
  • FIREFLIES NEED GENTLE HANDLING.  If you and I, or our children, go out to catch fireflies these nights, we need to remember to do it gently.  Whether we use hands or a net, damage can easily be done through thoughtless grasping or handling.  People – you and I, those we love, those we disagree with or find most annoying, the strong, the weak, the poor, the rich, the opponent and the colleague – all need gentle handling.  Life is difficult, and the ways each person experiences this difficulty are wide and varied.  We never know what is happening with – or within - another.  TLC is a good maxim.  Be tender:  be caring:  treat lovingly.  Gentleness is a strength in relationships and community building.

These are just samples of the lessons that may come from our lightning bugs, the tiny light-bearers.  They can tutor us, and have been tutor and inspiration for others over time.  Sources note that the Aztecs used the word firefly to mean a spark of knowledge in a world of ignorance or darkness.  In Japanese culture, fireflies contain the souls of soldiers who have died in battle, and lanterns are filled with them.  The Chinese believed they came from burning grass – these sparks of life.  The Ancient Mayans believed that fireflies carried the light of stars.  Ah, that one is a favorite of mine!

I invite you to join me in just being with fireflies or lightning bugs this June, if you can find them near you.  If not, find some online!  The gazing they prompt, if you just sit still, is contemplative.  There is a mantra effect to watching the lights flicker, and perhaps looking overhead at the stars.  Don’t miss their magic.

As a child, I chased them to capture them and hold them.  As a woman, long now, I watch and let them help me come to quiet and BEing in the night.  May they be a compline prayer for you, a primer for living, a reminder of truth.  And this deeper magic is a holy mystery in the ordinary, in creation… the place our Creator meets us so often.

May we meet, you and I, somehow – somewhere – someday, as light-bearers too!

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4 thoughts on “Lightning Bugs and Fireflies: Lessons from Tiny Light-Bearers

  1. Thank you so much for this – a beautiful reflection, as always. We don’t have fireflies here – I’ve never seen one! – but I am still so moved by what you share that I feel I’ve seen them today. I’ll be spending time considering my bioluminescence!

    • Thanks Toni… the bioluminescence catches me too. They ARE beautiful to see, and so ordinary here. Just being constitutively a light-bearer… that and their seeming magic in the darkness is enough for me!

  2. I absolutely LOVED this!!

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