When Catherine Ryan Hyde released her novel Pay it Forward, I suspect she had little idea just what kind of impact her book might have. Her novel, as you no doubt know, is built around a simple idea, do a good deed for three people, and then ask those three to “pay it forward” rather than pay it back, by doing good deeds for three others. You can see the idea explained by the novel’s central character Trevor in the movie version of the book, here.
The book, in a wonderful way, has come to embody it’s own central idea, that little things can have a big impact, one person can make a difference. As a character in the movie explains, if three people get helped, and they help three others, that’s nine. And if nine help three others that’s 27, and “it gets big really fast.”
Since publication, the pay it forward meme has shown up as a popular film, a foundation, a movement, a special day, and had an enormous, positive impact on thousands of lives. The book is living proof of its central idea: each of us can make a difference.
The idea that a small act can make an enormous difference is also an example of a central metaphor in Chaos Science, the butterfly effect. The butterfly effect was described by Edward Lorenz who asked the question, “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” There is a nice description of the butterfly effect on Wikipedia:
The phrase refers to the idea that a butterfly’s wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that may ultimately alter the path of a tornado or delay, accelerate or even prevent the occurrence of a tornado in a certain location. The flapping wing represents a small change in the initial condition of the system, which causes a chain of events leading to large-scale alterations of events.
Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the trajectory of the system might have been vastly different. While the butterfly does not “cause” the tornado in the sense of providing the energy for the tornado, it does “cause” it in the sense that the flap of its wings is an essential part of the initial conditions resulting in a tornado, and without that flap that particular tornado would not have existed.
What does the flapping of a butterfly’s wings have to do with hope in dark times? What Pay it Forward shows, and the butterfly effect describes, is that we can never know the impact of our actions. A simple kind word can save a life. A well-taught lesson can propel a student into a life of positive action. Any idea, your idea, can change the world.
The past two weeks we’ve been confronted by senseless, heart-breaking, tragedies. Who would blame us if we gave into despair? But the beauty of the butterfly effect is that it suggests there is always hope. Each decision, each act, has incredible potential. Each moment carries within it the potential for change. Each act can be a hopeful act.
Parker Palmer, one of my heroes, recently explained why he, for one, chooses not to give in to despair:
“There are times when it would be crazy not to be depressed. But I decided some years ago that if things are going to be hopeless, they are going to be hopeless in spite of me, not because of me.”
I agree completely. And I’m further encouraged by the thought that every act holds potential for good. As Trevor in Pay if Forward says when his teacher suggests his idea is overly utopian: “So?”
Why not keep doing the right thing? We can still have hope, and we all have the potential to make a difference.