You know this story. A butterfly in Brazil flaps its wings, and a few weeks later Texas has tornadoes instead of clear skies.
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 meddlesome 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? How could a few more keystrokes at the computer mean anything?
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 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.
My wife is an actor in the Texas Hill Country. She’s a bit of a local celebrity in our small town of 20,000 people. Last year, she went from comic farce to Shakespeare to The Wizard of Oz. I’m very proud of her work, and she has had a busy year.
Some performances are as exciting as you would expect for her—a full house holding its breath as she flies through a tornado somewhere over the rainbow. Other performances can feel like a failure, when fewer than 30 people show up on a Thursday night for a heart-wrenching drama.
A few years ago, we had lunch with a motivational speaker. He asked my wife, “Do you ever dream of Broadway? Do you ever wonder if you could make it there?”
She explained that she preferred to serve her local community.
But he wouldn’t relent. “Don’t you wonder if you’re good enough? I think you are! Don’t you want to dream bigger than this small town theater?”
My wife was very upset by the conversation. We have friends who have chosen to act in New York. We have friends who have chosen the film scene in LA. And we choose to flap our wings in Kerrville, Texas.
Who knows if our small actions in our small town will lead to larger ripples? We don’t control that. Grandiosity doesn’t motivate us to be good stewards of the talents God gave us. No. We flap our wings because God gave us wings. Simply taking flight is reward enough. Simply serving the immediate good of our local community is reward enough. It has to be.
Let God worry about distant storms. I need to roll up my sleeves, and do the work on my desk.