You know this story. A butterfly in Brazil flaps its wings, and a few weeks later Texas has tornadoes instead of clear skies. This holiday season is a time for you and I to look for a moment to make a difference in someone else’s life. It may seem small to you, but it may have a HUGE effect!
It’s called the butterfly effect, and science fiction writers love it. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly almost erases himself from existence after travelling back to 1955 in a DeLorean. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey changes the fate of his town when he wishes he had never been born. In chaos theory, a small change in a system—like the flap of a distant butterfly’s wing—can dramatically change the system … leading to a tornado in Texas.
The idea seems far-fetched, especially since so many pop culture examples rely on time travel or angels who are trying to earn their wings.
But mathematicians insist that it is real. If you let them, they will sit you down in a coffee shop and tell you all about the butterfly effect and chaos theory and topological mixing. Just insist that they buy the coffee. And remember that the work of a mathematician glorifies God by revealing the beauty of creation.
Beyond The High Calling of math, what does the butterfly effect have to do with the rest of us?
We are the butterflies.
I don’t care how much you love your job; sometimes you don’t love it. Sometimes you crawl out of bed and wonder why. How could today possibly matter? What good could a kind word or deed do to change humanity?
The butterfly effect fascinates us because we want to find meaning in our actions. We want to be the self-aware butterfly in Brazil, flapping our wings just so and creating tornadoes wherever we please.
There’s no doubt about it.
You are a small factor in the world. Don’t get down about it. I’m bald and small, too. But even the smallest actions can create ripples that change the world. We can’t anticipate the ripples, but we can still flap our wings knowing that our actions might help create a storm of activity. This means we need to take our actions seriously. A butterfly was made to flap its wings, suck nectar, and migrate thousands of miles with its brood.
What were you made to do? You can’t predict the effects of your actions, but you can take them seriously. You can develop your talents. You can work with diligence and faithfulness and integrity.
If you want to change the world, take heart. Your small actions can have tremendous impact. But I find another truth at work in this mathematic parable. The Brazilian butterfly never experiences the Texas tornado. It doesn’t know the end of the story, and neither do we.
Let God worry about distant storms. I need to roll up my sleeves, and do the work you and I are called to do.