The Butterfly Effect by Fran Salone-Pelletier

This essay originally appeared in the June 23, 2022, edition of the Brunswick Beacon.

In a rare moment of musing over past columns, I ran across one I had written 18 years ago. To my amazement, I found it apropos to a variety of issues, challenges, and possibilities we are experiencing today. It was especially notable in what I am deeming the ongoing presence of pandemic angst—a time when we are sensing universal upset.

Wars and rumors of wars pervade our sensibility. Life is turbulent and we are besieged with instability. Be it rising prices or lowered expectations, there is an assault on our desire and need for deep peace. So, as I wrote then I repeat now, we are flying in the atmosphere of the butterfly effect.

A local newspaper had published an op-ed that expounded on the reality and reaction of a phenomenon called the “Butterfly Effect.” Until the time I read that piece, I had only a vague memory of encountering those words in a review of a movie identically titled. As a phrase I had never heard before, it intrigued me. However, other events in my life took precedence, and I forgot all about my desire to investigate those evocative words.

Out of the blue, the op-ed appeared and my curiosity was swiftly aroused. The column mentioned a common occurrence, a bird landing on a wire. What made it uncommon was that the wire was a power line to the Los Angeles International Airport! The resulting blackout delayed nearly 100 flights. Despite a quick return to power, the article stated, “communications and air traffic control facilities were hard hit; some took hours to restore. More than an hour later, 40 delayed planes and hundreds of travelers were still circling overhead.”

More importantly, it continued, “Such sensitivity to small events is an integral feature of all complex, interconnected systems. Scientists coined a term to describe how small events can reverberate through complex networks and systems to cause major, even catastrophic, effects—the ‘butterfly effect,’ which posits that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can create a Texas tornado.”

Amazing, isn’t it?

In fact, a similar situation occurred while I was sitting in the cardiac surgery waiting room at New Hanover Regional Hospital in Wilmington, North Carolina. A squirrel raced across some critical wiring and the power in the hospital was interrupted for a few moments. Nothing major—just a warning that tiny things, little creatures, insignificant people can affect power sources and interrupt our lives.

The more I thought about that astounding, nearly incredible information, it became clearer to me that we are always involved in a butterfly effect. It is, in fact, a spiritual one. Every moment of every day, one of us is landing on another’s power line. We land butterfly light or with buffalo heaviness, but we do land.

I can remember the classic “burnt toast” story I always used when I did presentations in religious education to illustrate the insidious nature of sinfulness. The tale indicates a human reality. Mom—or Dad, for that matter—rushes to make breakfast for the family and inadvertently burns the toast. There is no time to remedy the matter. The first person to enter the kitchen angrily proclaims refusal to eat burnt toast. In reaction, the “burner” shouts an equally angry defense. Those who next enter the scene stumble into a shouting match not of their making. Everyone leaves to go to school and work, carrying the anger into the next arena of their life. By day’s end, even the dog is maltreated and unhappiness has spread everywhere. And the only occasion of “sin” was burnt toast!

I have experienced that human tragedy. Sadly, I expect most of us have. We have fallen prey to our own versions of burnt toast when innocent, unsuspecting persons have felt the sting of our wrath—and have passed the pain on to others.

But there is another side to the butterfly effect—a far more positive one. Dr. Thomas Frist Sr., cofounder of the Hospital Corporation of America, proposed it for his hospital personnel: “Good works beget good works.” Or we might hear others tell us to “pay it forward.” In both cases, we are being asked to land butterfly light with both random and determined acts of kindness. And we are being told that the action will cause a power surge, not outage, to be felt all down the line.

A word of compassion, an act of charity, a prayerful thought are all empowering forces. They reach far beyond the person to whom they are directed and given. A word of goodness, like the word of God, will not return empty or void. It will be effective, whether it be with butterfly gentleness or buffalo gravity.

As far as I am concerned, this is an incredibly wonderful message of hope.

Imagine a world entering shalom, the experience and expression of deep peace, because each one of us, time after time, acted wholesomely toward others. Imagine each butterfly, one at a time, over and over, landing on power lines of hate, violence, abuse, and aggression—and causing an outage of evil. At first, it could be simply an arresting moment, just a second or two when goodness prevailed and deviltry paused. But, eventually, the length of time that good is victorious over evil forces will grow and grow. It will remain longer and longer, until finally the butterfly effect will have radically changed the world into a place of peace, harmony, and justice.

Imagine the opposite. Imagine a tiny bit of evil landing on the power lines of goodness. Imagine the insidious silence of apathy landing lightly on waning optimism. Imagine the subtle horror of not deciding, not doing anything at all. And there will be a short outage of goodness—a shortage of charity, a dearth of justice. Continued, bit by bit, person by person, tiny terrors, one at a time, and the potency of goodness will be drastically damaged until it exists no more. And evil reigns.

Is this the world we want? Or do we ache for a universal paradise where people live with justice and harmony, understanding and compassion, truth and acceptance?

I do.

Is this my fanciful dream, the musing of an eternal optimist? Perhaps. But then there was a little bird who landed, butterfly light, on a power line in Los Angeles and disrupted everything. Planes could not land. Schedules were interrupted. Life, for a moment, paused. A tiny bird had caused a butterfly effect.

So can I. So can you.

The question lingers: “Will we?”

♦ ♦ ♦

The Butterfly Effect 

Perfected balance
a dance
between here and there
now and then
empowered by sweet
need and delicate desire
nature’s floral arrangement
of nurture and life
we gaze with wonder
at the miracle in sight

Fran Salone-Pelletier holds a master’s degree in theology. She is the author of a trilogy of scriptural meditations, Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives, as well as a religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer, and grandmother of four. She can be reached at hope5@atmc.net.

Image: Wenceslaus Hollar, Four Butterflies, 1646. Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain
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