According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the butterfly effect is “a property of chaotic systems (such as the atmosphere) by which small changes can lead to large-scale and unpredictable variation in the state of the system.”
We can think about the butterfly effect in our own lives because very small changes or variations, or alternative choices we make, can have radically different consequences for us and for others.
Think about any choice you have made in any situation at any time. What if you didn’t make that choice? Would things have turned out differently? The answer is yes. They probably would have.
It’s amazing to take this train of thought and extrapolate it out. Let’s do that. Each and every one of us, at some time, have or will make choices that might change the course of what we now know. Or maybe, just maybe, alter the entire future of humanity. Impossible you say? Maybe not so impossible.
Take for instance the story of Private Henry Tandey. Private Tandey was a soldier in the British armed forces in World War I fighting in France. As Tandey relates the story, “during the final moments of that battle (the battle was in the French village of Marcoing), as the German troops were in retreat, a German soldier entered my line of fire. I took aim, but couldn’t shoot a wounded man, so I let him go. The German soldier nodded his thanks and disappeared.” Although historians are divided on who that German soldier was, Adolf Hitler identified Tandey in a print of a painting by Italian artist Fortunio Matania.
Hitler is reported to have said to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, “that’s the man that nearly shot me.”
Those who study the butterfly effect call this a “turning point.” A turning point is a crossroad where time can swing one way or the other. What if that German soldier was Hitler? What if Private Tandey had taken that shot? Might the course of history have been changed? Would World War II have even happened?
Seventy-five million people died (military and civilian) including six million persons of Jewish descent. If any one of those persons had not been killed by the war, or the psychopathic dictator Hitler, they may have gone on to discover the cure for cancer. Or maybe they would have become a Nobel laureate in chemistry, literature or even peace.
The butterfly effect reminds us of each large or small decision we form has repercussions, for right now and for later. We all make choices every day.
What if everyone stopped before we acted or before we said something? What if we stopped and said to ourselves, because we all talk to ourselves anyway, if I choose to act this way or that way, what would happen?
Do you remember as a child when your parent or caregiver would say to you as you left for school for the day, “make good choices” or something to that effect?
The choices we make have reverberations across time and affect the lives of others, sometimes forever. Did you watch the movie “Cloud Atlas?”
It wasn’t a particularly popular movie, but it starred Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, among others. When I watched the movie, I felt as if the central message was choice and consequences of those prerogatives across time. Some of my favorite quotes from the movie are “truth is singular. Its versions are mistruths,” “the minute you stop trying to find it, it will find you,” and “our lives are not our own, from womb to tomb, we are bound to others.” In fact, in the movie, one act of kindness inspires a revolution.
It is simply astounding to think that if we had made a different choice in a certain situation, our lives would not be the same. If Private Tandey had shot Hitler, how would the world look now? We wouldn’t have neo-Nazi hate groups in America today, because the likelihood of the Nazis ever coming to power without Adolf Hitler would be practically nil.
My point to all this is we must never underestimate the power of our choices on the lives of others. We must never underestimate the power of our druthers on our own future. When your parent or caregiver extolled you to “make good choices,” that’s just good advice.
Permit me, if you will, to implore you to make the choice to be kind, to make the choice to give to those who have less than you, to make the choice to be the one who apologizes first, to make the choice to be the first to say to those you love “I love you,” to make the choice to forgive (holding grudges really sucks anyway).
The butterfly effect is real, because the choices we make, both large and small, reverberate across time to others, known and unknown to us, in ways we can’t even fathom.
Richard Stride is the current CEO of Cascade Community Healthcare. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.