When faced with the suffering in the world, most of us don’t believe we have the power to change things – so we don’t do anything. This isn’t only because we don’t know what to do but also because we can’t be certain that we can ‘fix’ things – so we don’t even try. As a society, we have become so result oriented that we have moved away from doing what we believe to be right towards doing only what we believe will have succeed.
When our whole orientation is towards outcomes, we can become afraid to even try new things as our actions are defined solely by success and failure. But perhaps more importantly than that, this focus on results has also robbed us of the notion of being moral agents in our own rights and substituted instead, the much lesser ideal of success. Hence a moral action that doesn’t result in a ‘successful’ outcome is seen as a waste of time while an amoral – or even immoral – action that brings about a desired result is seen as not only more practical but also better in every way.
This is not just a morally dubious way to approach the world but also one that is so subject to outside influence it is simply reactive, rather than active and coming from a place of strength. Regardless of our experiences or hopes of prevailing, it is, in every way, more useful to judge our actions relative to an ethical and moral standard rather than relative to their chances of success. When we don’t do this it is not just a cause of small, insignificant personal problems but, I believe, one of the problems at the root of most serious societal dysfunction, as even when we do know what to do we don’t do it because we aren’t guaranteed success.
The problems of the world seem impossible for us to approach, let alone solve. We are all Davids in the face of Goliaths of corruption or violence or suffering. But the fact is that even stupendous achievement are rarely one ‘big’ action but rather countless tiny, discrete acts of bravery, integrity and conscience. If you take each tiny ethical action and add it to the next tiny ethical action and continue to do this across the board – eventually you have a huge tsunami of moral behaviour which has the power to effect great change. Unfortunately it is also true in reverse. All those tiny and seemingly insignificant immoral actions that we all perform – the white lies, the small cheats – also add up and engulf everything.
Every single thing that every single one of us does all of the time matters in the overall scheme of things. There is no such thing as a deed – good or bad –that doesn’t have some effect somewhere. To have a better understanding how this actually works it is useful to see how it works in the natural world where it manifests as The Butterfly Effect.
As well as being the ‘father’ of chaos theory, Edward Lorenz was also the first person to speak about the now famous Butterfly Effect. This metaphor describes the concept of sensitive dependence on initial conditions in chaos theory – which simply means that a small change at the start of any complex system can have large effects elsewhere. In the early 1960s, Lorenz realized that small initial differences in the atmosphere (which is a complex, dynamic system) could trigger vast and often unsuspected results. These observations led him to formulate his theory of change which was ultimately named after a paper he presented in 1972 entitled: “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”
The idea of the butterfly’s wing flapping is that, tiny as the movement is, it can still create equally tiny changes in the atmosphere that might ultimately alter the path of a tornado, delaying, accelerating or even preventing the occurrence of that tornado in a certain location. The flapping wings simply represents a small change which causes a chain of events leading to large scale alterations in the ultimate event. While the butterfly is not responsible for causing the tornado – in that it doesn’t provide the energy for the tornado – it does have a part to play insofar as the flap of its wings is an essential part of the initial conditions which result in the tornado – without the flap that particular tornado could never have existed.
Most of us feel as insignificant as any butterfly in a storm when we are faced with the massive injustice and suffering in the world but if it is true that small, seemingly insignificant events can have a huge influence on ultimate outcomes maybe we would have more respect for butterfly wing actions and be more willing to try them in the hope of effecting change?