The butterfly effect

[notice]A monthly column by Marcel van der Watt, lecturer in the Department of Police Practice at UNISA, former police detective, and current member of the Gauteng Rapid Response Task Team for Human Trafficking.[/notice]

As I consider the significance of human rights day on March 21, I am reminded of the words of Eleanor Roosevelt who stated that “friendship with oneself is all important because without it one cannot be friends with anybody else in the world”. I considered the notion of ‘friendship with oneself’ and realised the reverberating effect that an individual’s condition can have on society at large.

The power of a simple smile, a random act of kindness and sincerity as the impetus for saying ‘thank you’ or ‘I am sorry’ is something that is worth tapping into on a more frequent basis and may just be the inadvertent trigger to a larger good news story waiting to be unlocked. The ‘butterfly effect’ is an example often used in the natural sciences. Elaborating on the notion of the ‘butterfly effect’, Capra (1996:134)[i] points to the understanding that minute changes in a system’s initial state will lead, over time, to large scale consequences. Capra draws a nexus between the ‘butterfly effect’ and the half-jested assertion that a “butterfly stirring the air today in Beijing can cause a storm in New York next month”.

Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist, discovered the butterfly effect in the early 1960’s. He designed a simple model of weather conditions consisting of three coupled non-linear equations. Lorenz found that the solutions to his equations were extremely sensitive to the initial condition and from virtually the same starting point, two trajectories would develop in completely different ways, making any long range prediction impossible (Capra, 1996:134).

The media and even our own interaction with the world are so often flooded with accounts of anger, exploitation and disregard for the well-being of others. A deliberate disconnection from watching television or listening to the radio is often vital as we realise the poisoning effect of ‘over exposure’ characterised by a sense of doubt, heavy heartedness, cynicism and even anger or bitterness. Red flags show up as we drive through an amber traffic light followed by a red one and vow to stop twice the next day. Arriving home and responding with a loud FINEto a family sincerely interested in our well-being, we don’t realise our response to mean something totally different (Freaked-out, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional). It’s times like these when unhealthy emotions can be equated to acid that does more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than anything on which it is poured[ii]. Sadly, however, the butterfly effect is also relevant and others may inadvertently be hurt in the process.

Let’s consider friendship with oneself as both a precipitator and catalyst for bringing about the change we would like to see in the world.

Count your blessings instead of your crosses;
Count your gains instead of your losses.
Count your joys instead of your woes;
Count your friends instead of your foes.

Count your smiles instead of your tears;
Count your courage instead of your fears.
Count your full years instead of your lean;
Count your kind deeds instead of your mean.

Count your health instead of your wealth;
Love your neighbor as much as yourself.
                                                                                   Poet: Unknown



[i] Capra, F. 1996. The web of life: A new scientific understanding of living systems. New York: Anchor Books Doubleday.

[ii] Mark Twain

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