The Butterfly effect

The current Sunday evening drama on BBC1 called “Us” is about a couple who have arrived at that stage in life when their son is about to go to University and they are wondering about their future together. Douglas (the husband) has organised a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe for the three of them … and then Connie (his wife) tells him that she wants to leave him. Douglas plans every aspect of what he does with meticulous precision and Connie leaving is definitely not part of his plan.

It set me reflecting on just how much control we have in our lives. Whatever the answer was at the beginning of the year, for most of us it has decreased in the last six months and for those who had the least control before the pandemic it has probably decreased the most.

Much of the time, what we see as our freedom to control what happens in our lives is illusory. We can, like Douglas, make plans but any plans that we make are only provisional, just ask anyone who’s tried to organise a holiday abroad this summer. Weather, illness, company failures, unemployment and so many other things can interrupt he ‘smooth running’ of our lives and throw our plans into disarray. “Us” was written and made before the pandemic, but given Douglas’s reaction to setbacks, I can only imagine how the present COVID-19 outbreak would have affected him, as his carefully laid plans crumbled before his eyes.

Not having complete control over our lives, doesn’t mean that there’s no point in having plans, just that we have to be prepared to accept that changes will likely be required. Everyone experiences twists and turns in their life, from everyday challenges to traumatic events with lasting impact, like the death of a loved one, a life-altering accident, or a serious illness. Each change affects people differently, bringing with it a unique mix of thoughts, emotions and uncertainty.

Adversities like these are sadly part of life and trying to live our lives in the illusion that we can control all aspects of our existence, only leads to pain and anxiety. However we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that what we do doesn’t have any effect on the lives of others. For instance my failure to take appropriate steps to limit the spread of COVID could quickly result in the spread of infection to people that I come into contact with and move from one end of the country to the other very fast. On the way, it could well have serious and lasting consequences for many people who I’ve never even met.

The smallest of actions can ultimately have huge consequences. This idea is sometimes known as the “butterfly effect”, after the American mathematician Edward Lorenz who suggested that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon might ultimately cause a tornado in Texas. A bit far-fetched perhaps, but Lorenz’s illustration helped him explain why forecasting the future is so difficult.

In the Bible we meet many groups of people who face adversities of all kinds and who come through by placing their faith in a loving God. For instance, in trying to encourage the people of Israel in exile in Babylon, the prophet Isaiah writes:

Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

We may not know what lies ahead but we can all be strengthened and supported by each other and by God.

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