Monday, January 25, 2010

Chaos Theory

"Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?"
-Edward Lorenz, American mathematician, meteorologist

DISCLAIMER: This post is going to start off pretty cliche, but stay with me. Just like me, you have no idea where this post is taking you when you start.

What is the purpose of life?

I haven't meditated on this question for a while, but it definitely bears being referred back to, lest we get lost in the day-to-day trials that we end up not fully appreciating. Is our purpose just to be? To accomplish goals? To procreate and simply prolong the existence of our species?

I think our intended purpose changes day to day. For me, from my vantage of my current purpose, I'm pursuing a way of life I want to live day in and day out. Am I working toward this goal? Toward this supposed "ideal"? As I'm progressing toward this horizon, my day-to-day actions have far-reaching effects - effects I cannot begin to realize.

What effect have you had on someone's life lately?
  • Did you cut someone off this morning on your way to work?
  • Have you inspired someone today?
  • Did you not tip your server well this past weekend?

The way I look at it, we have three different types of effect on people: direct, indirect and "chaotic."

Direct effects are the most obvious ones:
  • You made a quick move into the left lane, knowing it's a bit close, but you can't be late for another meeting or you're fired. You see the guy behind you flick you off and think to yourself, "another casualty of war." Shouldn't have been out so late with your buddy last night.
  • Your friend got dumped a couple weeks ago and can't seem to get over it. You take him out to the nearest watering hole, have a few drinks and let him get it all off his chest. You toss him a few motivational words, then suddenly the next day he's a little more optimistic.
  • You're in a rush at the restaurant and take off as soon as you give your server a $20 on a $19.45 check. You don't leave any more cash on the table. Gotta make it to the bar to meet your buddy - he's feeling a little down since he got dumped.
Indirect effects can be traced back to the source, but would require a bit more research than any of us really cares to do on a given day:
  • That guy you cut off on the way to work got so frustrated that he snapped at his girlfriend on the phone when she called a few minutes later to tell him he left his lunch at the house. The shock of his outlash made her cry. Their relationship had been somewhat rocky in the first place - she ends up leaving him a note while he's at work and is gone before noon. She feels free for the first time in years and decides to head to the park with one of her favorite books.
  • That friend you inspired had a little more bounce in his step the next day. Around noon he goes for a walk in the nearby park. He sees a woman reading a book on a bench and recognizes the author on the cover. Feeling a little more confident in himself, he initiates conversation. After talking for a couple hours, they agree to meet up for dinner later that night.
  • That server you didn't tip was short on her rent payment by just a few bucks and doesn't have anybody from whom she can borrow money. The next day her landlord kicks her out of the apartment, as she is already two months late on rent and is short for this month, even though it's only a few bucks.
And finally, we have the chaotic effects:
  • The girl who finally feels free has a date later that night. Someone approached her in the park and she's smitten. She's running late and gets a phone call from an old friend she hasn't talked to in years. She needs a place to stay because she couldn't pay her rent. The girl, being too nice to refuse, offers to let her stay on her couch for a few days. However, she has to go pick her friend up who is on the other side of town. She calls the guy she's meeting at the restaurant and tells him she's going to be an hour late.
  • Your friend you inspired is excited for his date later that night but gets a phone call from her saying she's going to be pretty late. He decides to go back to his house to wait for a bit and makes a U-turn. He didn't see the F-150 before it T-boned him.
  • Thankfully, the server was able to get in touch with an old friend who is going to let her stay on her couch. Her friend comes to pick her up and when they get back to her friend's place they find that her house was in flames. Apparently she had been in such a rush she had left her hair-straightener on and, being perched on the edge of the sink, it fell into the garbage pail, lighting the contents on fire, which quickly spread throughout the house. The server, after making sure her friend is OK, decides to call up her mom, who she hasn't spoken to in years. Her mom comes to pick her up and they quickly reconnect and reforge a strong, lasting bond.
And because the effects don't stop there, your friend who got T-boned was paralyzed from the waist down. The girl he met at the park visits him in the hospital and they begin to date, falling fast in love. They end up getting married and your buddy ends up walking again in time for his wedding a few years later. He writes a book called "My Journey" and it becomes a best-seller, inspiring millions. You attended your buddy's wedding and hooked up with a bridesmaid. You got AIDS.

All because:
  • You cut someone off on your way to work one morning
  • You inspired a friend
  • You forgot to tip your server
And all you may have been doing was pursuing a way of life you wanted to live day in and day out. In short, you caused:

A break-up, a marriage, a fire, an eviction, a car accident, a strong mother-daughter bond, a best-selling novel, huge profit margins for a publishing company and inspiration to millions. Not to mention the fact that you contracted AIDS.

To answer the quotation from the beginning of the post - personally, I don't think it's impossible. The actions that may at first seem to be most inconsequential, the most insignificant...those are the ones that may have the most far-reaching effects. In short, the "butterfly effect."