Butterflies on Valentine’s Day

Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?  ~ Edward Lorenz

When you reach a certain age, you realize that there were certain moments in your past that significantly affected who and what you are. My life would be very different today if Mona at the Job Service office hadn’t told me back in the 70’s about an upcoming civil service test, or Becky at a friend’s party hadn’t persuaded me back in the 80’s to give aikido a try.

The same can also be true of relationships: looking back, you may realize that one person has had a profound effect on your life. For some, it might be a teacher or mentor; for me it was Susan.

I first met her on a ski weekend at Stowe in December, 1994. Each year about 100 of us go to Stowe to start the ski season off with skiing, lessons and camaraderie. Many of us have participated in this ritual for years, so new people tend to stand out. At the Thursday evening party that year, I noticed a cute blond standing by the fire; I went over and introduced myself.

I soon learned that her name was Susan and she lived in Rhode Island. Someone she knew through work, who lived in Michigan, had mentioned he was a regular at our clinic (the group comes from a variety of places around the country). She was interested in improving her skiing, so she signed up with the trip organizer. Her Michigan friend wound up not being able to attend the clinic that year, but Susan decided to go anyway.

I was intrigued by both her appearance and the way she spoke, and we wound up hitting it off. By the end of the weekend, we made plans to get together for New Year’s weekend. As things turned out, that second weekend together didn’t go quite so smoothly. While it ended on an awkward note, we still were attracted to each other and decided to keep in touch.

To make a long story short, we continued to see each other and our relationship grew. We dated for about two years, until the strains that often come with a long distance relationship took their toll. But even though we stopped dating, we’ve kept in touch – commiserating occasionally about work, relationships, skiing and life in general. Although our lives have gone in different directions, I still feel a special connection with Susan.

A few days ago, I was clearing out some files on my computer when I came across a copy of an email Susan had sent me a week after our bumpy New Year’s weekend. There were a number of things that struck me about that note, including her insight into some issues I was facing at the time and her generosity in focusing on what I was going through (rather than any irritations she may have felt about my behavior that weekend).

But beyond that was a sense of how far I’ve come since that time. Before then I had felt blocked and frustrated, having a sense of what might be called my “vision” but not knowing what to do about it. But thanks in great part to Susan’s encouragement and example, I’ve been able to get beyond that blockage and just do things I believe in, without too much concern about their outcome.

That can be a big step – especially when your ideas are out of the mainstream, as some of mine seem to be. But thanks to Susan, I went ahead and signed up for my first Pan-Mass Challenge. And thanks to her, I turned my offbeat ideas into my web site Quantum Age …and now this blog.

Edward Lorenz was a pioneer in chaos theory who coined the term “butterfly effect” to describe the phenomena in which small variations at one point in time can create a dramatic difference in outcomes. This is now a common subject in popular culture, even if some scientists feel it’s sometimes used incorrectly.

I believe it does have a usefulness in understanding how certain events or people can have a profound effect on our lives. The catch is we need to understand that it’s impossible to predict in advance which events or people will have that effect.

Last spring I was on a panel of former political science graduates at my college, Hobart & William Smith. Our task was to give current poli sci majors an idea of the range of career opportunities they might pursue with their degree. But one thing that struck me was the hunger many of them had to nail down a “right” answer to the question “What should I do?

Our panel tried to give our audience ideas, but I had the sense we weren’t really giving them what they wanted. What that was, it seemed, was certainty: the message that if you do such and such, everything will work out well in the end.

The problem is that life is always uncertain. For one thing, we don’t know how much the world will change over the course of our lives. When I graduated from Hobart in 1974, there was no way I could have known I would someday spend much of my working time on a personal computer, and include among my pasttimes creating and writing for a web site and blog. Such things hadn’t even been thought of back then. Beyond that, we have no idea what future events and people will come to have a profound effect on the direction our life will take.

I won’t presume to tell others how to live their lives. But personally, I believe there’s a value to not getting too hung up about the future. Instead, I believe it’s important to be aware of what is going on around you and what strikes a chord within you, and to then act. Maybe you won’t wind up wealthy and famous. Maybe others will even consider you a little peculiar. But if you are at one with yourself, that won’t really matter.

Who knows? Maybe some day you’ll be lucky enough to meet someone who will enrich your life in unpredictable ways.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Susita!

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About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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