The Butterfly Effect: Mindfulness and Our Role In a Bigger Picture

Feeling insignificant?  Powerless?  We all do from time to time, especially when situations large or small seem to be spiraling out of our control.  Our inability to make things the way we want right now, or the helplessness we feel when reading about current events can make us feel like specks of dust being tossed around at the will of a wind storm. 

We are indeed way more powerful than we are aware of.  The reason for this is we don’t ever get to see the full extent of our impact on the world around us.  Sometimes our influence is obvious; we do this, and then that happens.  But the reality is that by merely existing we can inadvertently move mountains.  The tiniest action or inaction can trigger something massive. This is known as the “butterfly effect.” 

The butterfly effect is an aspect of Chaos Theory, which explores how seemingly random occurrences are all part of complex chain reactions.  The butterfly effect has to do with the way that the slightest change at the beginning of a chain of events can dramatically alter the outcome.

I love the example of this in Ray Bradbury’s brilliant short story, A Sound of Thunder, published in 1952.  In the story, our protagonist, Eckels, takes a time traveling safari to the distant past to hunt dinosaurs.  Travis, the Safari Leader tries in vain to explain to an uncomprehending Eckels that killing a “significant” animal from over 60 million years ago could change everything in their current time, “Step on a mouse and you leave your print, like a Grand Canyon, across Eternity.”  Upon their return to 2055, they realize that the accidental killing of a butterfly on their expedition changes everything.

So it turns out we are indeed rather mighty!  Every time we set foot outside the front door we are subconsciously influencing the future;  sometimes to a good end and sometimes bad.   Either way, it is often beyond our knowing and control.  Or is it?

Here is the connection I have made between my mindful living practice and what I have learned of the butterfly effect.  I believe that certain decisions increase the likelihood of a good outcome.  Staying in the right and being mindful of our actions at all times can help to ensure a more positive impact on the world around us.  Although  this often means action, sometimes the next right move is doing or saying nothing at all.  Let’s ponder how this works in three different arenas:

Our Natural Environment

A good proactive measure that can be the beginning of a beautiful chain of natural events has to do with giving back to the planet from which we take so much.  Clearly we can’t all put back what we consume in the same fashion.  I’m not suggesting you grow all of your own food, but planting every year is a surefire way to contribute to the magnificent cycle of life happening all around us.  

That teeny weeny perennial you plant in the front yard will bloom year after year and be a source of nectar for the bee who makes honey in a hive and becomes food for the bird who lays five eggs who become five more birds who eat berries and poop them out miles away where they land in a field and become seedling trees and on and on.  Wow!  Bet you don’t often think of planting humble hydrangeas as the beginning of such an environmental impact.

If you are reading this, I assume you are a thoughtful type who doesn’t need to be told that skipping the plastic straw or plastic bag is the environmentally conscious thing to do; clearly a good preventative measure.  The next time you schlep your own reusable totes to Stop and Shop, or your own reusable water bottle to the beach however, pause a moment.  Be mindful of what you may be preventing from happening.  

I think of a video I used with elementary students studying human impact on the environment. It was a cute, cautionary tale chronicling the life of a discarded plastic water bottle. It goes from ground, to gutter, to waterway, to ocean, to a terrifying plastic island blob twice the size of Texas, a “trash vortex” called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  Eww…  How wonderful to know you are not creating a similar chain reaction.  Raise your hot pink Hydro Flask and say cheers to Earth instead!

During Daily Interactions

As the little things we do or don’t do can set off significant chains of reaction in our physical surroundings, the interactions we have with the people around us, however small, can also alter the future.  Being ever mindful of what we do or say to other people is powerful.  We have no way of knowing the mental or emotional states of others just by looking at them and a seemingly insignificant interaction can trigger future events in ways we can never know.

Let’s look at the “random act of kindness.”  Going out of our way, even the littlest bit, to be kind to others gives us an internal sense of satisfaction, of course.  It feels good to do good.  But how deeply can it impact the course of future events?  A lot.  Easing a person’s suffering just a little, cheering someone in a bad mood, or sharing an uplifting idea can inspire something miraculous.  They are in turn kind to another, who is kind to another, and so it continues.

On the flip side, inaction is just as impactful.  Know when it may be better to walk away or keep silent.  This requires mindfulness about how your feelings affect your actions.  This is not always easy to practice.  I admit, I have occasionally succumbed to… ehem… a bout of road rage here and again (not ENTIRELY my fault, New York drivers are bananas!).  I hate to imagine the other drivers’ future interactions with people right after I’ve flipped them the bird and screamed obscenities out my driver window.   

In the Digital Sphere

As so much of our current, and most likely future, realities exist in cyberspace it is important to consider our lasting impact there as well.  In education, we speak often to students about their “digital footprint” and how ANYTHING you post ANYWHERE online has the potential to be uncovered and affect you or others down the line.  There is no such thing as internet privacy.  

So how do you plan to wield this power?  What is your intention when you create digital content in the form of social media posts, blog articles, or websites?  Your digital rant in the heat of the moment can touch the hearts of people long after you yourself have gotten a hold on your emotions.  You can inadvertently misinform, polarize, instill fear, provoke paranoia, stir anger, create frustration, or bring sorrow to your readers and viewers.  Think of how a single post can make or break your own mood?

I’m not saying we need to lie to our online following or sugarcoat reality in any way.  Just think of a time when the perfect inspirational quote, message, or meme crossed your screen and shifted your perception positively.  The content we post online has the power to uplift, inform, console, connect, enlighten, and entertain.  

It may just be the hippie in me, but can’t we all use a little more of that right now?  Think of the potential chain reaction.

I’ll bet you had no idea that you wielded such power!

So let’s be ever mindful of our words and actions for we never can know the far reaching effects of what we say or do.  We can be certain that we have an impact on the rest of the world, as we do not exist in isolation.  We are part of a much larger web of connections, both literally and figuratively.  When we keep this idea in mind, we can increase the odds of favorable outcomes.  Every new day offers opportunities to change “initial conditions.”  So, friends, tread lightly and with intention.  The future thanks you!

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