Hope in Dark Times
Written by Jim Knight.

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.


  1. seanharemac.com

    Great article, each of us make decisions everyday that can impact others in ways we don’t know. One of the ways to fulfill the hope that we have a positive impact on others is to do our best to ensure that the initial act, whatever it may be, is done with the best of intentions and with a pure heart.

  2. Jana

    Excellent article.

  3. Catherine Ryan Hyde

    How wonderful! Thank you so much for this wonderful blog post, and for sharing it with me.

    • Jim Knight

      Catherine, thank you! It is your idea that has proven to be such a force for good. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment on this column.

  4. Holly Ward

    I became a teacher because I wanted to make a difference. 20 years later I am still trying to make a difference. I keep waiting for the big tornado to show me that I have made a difference, but maybe I have missed the butterfly wings of difference. I know that all of the students and teachers that I have crossed paths with have made a difference in my life and just maybe we are all connected in those differences. Thanks for reminding me of the hope that truly comes with each new day.

      • Holly Ward

        Thanks so much for sharing!!

      • Jennifer Sikes

        Thanks for sharing. Not only did I enjoy the inspiration of your blog post about Lenny, I truly appreciate your blog list on the right hand margin. I’m new to blogging and enjoy the ease with which I can now find relevant blogs. Thanks!

  5. Stacey L

    Thanks so much for this post. I can be very idealistic, but also pessimistic, and sometimes I feel if all the stress and striving are worth it. As a literacy coach, I do not get the same feedback…smiles and hugs..that I did from my first graders. Thank you for reminding me that it is the little things I may never know about that really make the difference.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *