By Jeffrey Abramowitz
In 1963, Edward Lorenz presented a paper to the New York Academy of Sciences defining “The Butterfly Effect.” Simply summarized, “The Butterfly Effect” demonstrates the dependence of small, seemingly inconsequential, movements on ultimate results.
Lorenz showcased his theory by explaining how the formation of a natural disaster such as a hurricane or tornado can be set off by the act of a butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the world, as that initial release of kinetic energy builds up enough air molecules to eventually create significant force. “The Butterfly Effect” outlines how a very small choice or change can create a massively different and unconsidered outcome.
Much like the air molecules developed by a butterfly flapping its wings, the decisions, and choices we make set in motion a chain of events, far beyond the sphere of our imagination. A simple choice to read a book could lead to lessons that last a lifetime and impact the lives of people we do not yet know. The choices we make are frequently made on a whim, based on a gut reaction or with little understanding of the wide-ranging effects or consequences that lie ahead. And, yet, for every choice, we must anticipate there will be some form of reaction. Following the logic of Newton’s Third Law, each choice we make has some effect; however, we cannot assume that the reaction will be equal or opposite. Sometimes, the related outcome is not only unexpected, but far outweighs our initial intentions. Throwing a water balloon out of a moving car window, attempting only to generate a laugh among the car’s passengers, may not be as funny when the balloon bursts and causes accidental injuries to innocent bystanders.
Let’s illustrate “The Butterfly Effect” further, and look at a hypothetical story of two co-workers and neighbors. The two work at the same office and for the same hours. They drive the same car along the same route to and from their place of employment. The first worker, Joe, leaves work and is headed home when he approaches a traffic light. He watches as the glow of the light changes from green to yellow to red. Despite seeing a stale red signal as he inches closer, Joe puts his foot on the gas pedal, races through the intersection, and makes it safely home for dinner. Joe’s colleague, Tom, unfortunately, has a different story. Although Tom was initially scheduled to leave at the same time as Joe, when another co-worker drops some papers on the ground in his path, his departure is delayed by mere seconds as he stops to tidy up. Tom drives the same route as Joe, at the same speed, and approaches the very same traffic light. As he observes the light change from green, to yellow, to red, he makes the identical choice as Joe did minutes before, and proceeds through the stale, red signal. However, as he does so, an elderly woman crosses the road and slowly walks in front of his car. His bumper hits the woman, thrusts her into the air, and causes severe and eventually fatal injuries.
While we know the context and that actions of these two colleagues were identical in every respect, the end results wound up so direly different. The story of Tom and Joe is the perfect example of Lorenz’s “Butterfly Effect” – a mere few seconds changed the course of, otherwise, two interchangeable lives.
We know Tom and Joe had wholly neutral intentions – their sole motivation was making it home to their families. Even so, in morality and ethics, right and wrong is gauged by the end result, often disregarding the intention altogether. Therefore, moral, and ethical wisdom is measured by our ability to glance into the future and consider the consequences of our upcoming or past choices.
Moral and ethical wisdom also ought to be defined by our ability to recognize that choices extend beyond concrete actions. We sometimes buy into a misguided view that, in order for something to happen, one must actually do something to set that plan into motion. In reality, neutrality or silence have repercussions as well and must be considered as “actions” in their own right. The failure to do something, such as speaking up for a friend who is being marginalized or seeking external help when we fear for the safety of a neighbor, will force consequences now beyond our control, and create a chain of events which were never intended when we chose to initially stay silent. Consider the failure of the United States to enter World War II – entering the battle at an earlier stage could have saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives. There are countless examples of events which have occurred throughout history, directly linked to someone’s, a large group of people’s, or even a government’s choice to do nothing. While remaining as a bystander in a situation may be meant as a passive act, it runs the risk of turning into the most costly, violent, or even deadly choice available.
The choices we make every minute of each day will most assuredly touch someone or something overtime. It will be through those choices that we will be judged and remembered. As Martin Luther King Jr. astutely reminded us: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” Our choices become our legacy. The molecules we move, or those ones we allow to remain stagnant, will change some aspect of our universe. Thus, the best advice we can offer is a cliché: choose wisely. Think before you act and aim to look into the past with pride and confidence, knowing the steps you took were ones in the right direction for not only yourself but for our interconnected humanity.