The Butterfly Effect

Imagine this: you were in a hurry this morning, and on your way out of your apartment building, you didn’t hold the door for the lady who was following closely behind you. Because she was not expecting to have to catch the large and heavy door, the door slams on her fingers and a few of them are broken. You, of course, have not noticed because you are already across the street and in the subway station before the woman even yells in pain. This woman, a doctor who lives in your building, was supposed to perform urgent surgery on a very important person at work that day. Another surgeon had to do the surgery, but because this surgeon was just a little less experienced, the patient died.

As it turns out, the patient was a key player in mediating peace talks between nations in a conflict zone – that was part of why the operation had to be done so urgently. Nonetheless, his death meant that negotiations ended, and war broke out, ending millions of lives on both sides.

Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?

This was the title of a talk given by Dr. Edward Lorenz, the first person to describe an aspect of chaos theory that we know as the butterfly effect. Simply put, he posits that even the tiniest actions can have an enormous impact, even if we don’t immediately see it. In this case, what triggered this action? You didn’t hold a door open for somebody.

Now, I know that the sequence of events I just described is highly improbable, but I just wanted to illustrate the point that even if you’re not aware of it, you have an enormous impact on the world around you. If you don’t believe me, go watch Pay it Forward, which is a classic example of good cause and effect, no good deed goes unrewarded, etc. Many religions talk about this to some extent: Buddhism teaches about cause and effect and karma; Christianity teaches the story of the Good Samaritan; Islam also teaches about cause and effect; the list goes on and on.

What I’m trying to say is: try to be a little nicer in your daily life. Spend that extra second to hold that door…maybe even spend two seconds and let a couple of people through. Smile at a person that looks like they’re having a crappy day. Leave those extra two dollars you don’t need to your cabbie or to your server in a restaurant.

You never know what the extra dollar or extra few seconds might do. Hey, you might save a few million lives by averting a war.

Image from Reality


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