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The Butterfly Effect, Chaos, and a Life Forever Altered

Many years ago, I found myself walking down a college sidewalk. Little did I know that walk would forever change my life. Chaos and the unexpected, those minute occurences, are precisely the events which can have the greatest impact on our individual trajectory.

I’m going to stray a bit from my typical opening here, so stay with me. I promise it will make sense in the end. A little bit of science explanation before I describe how it corresponds to our everyday life.

The butterfly effect—are you familiar with it? It’s a principle of chaos theory, which is essentially a theory that claims there is order in chaos, and what is random is not so random.

The butterfly effect theorizes that small changes can have massive consequences, or more aptly put—a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon can set forth in motion a series of events that causes a tornado in Texas days later.

Everyday there are occurrences in our lives that are large, small, and minute. As we go about our day, frequently we overlook the random, when the random can have life-altering effects. In a good way.

Most people like to plan, whether it is in the form of a detailed strategic plan with footnotes, a vision board, imagery, or another loosey-goosey kind of way. We think of goals, career plans, family and life dreams, and take methodical steps to make our imagined a reality. But along the way, what we think of as incremental in fact has an arbitrariness aspect to it.

My husband and I originally met online, in one of those sites that predated what we now consider “social media.” But let me unpack it further.

I was on that website, because of a chance encounter that led to a series of events—forever altering the trajectory of my life.

There I was, walking down a sidewalk at college, and a photographer took my picture. She handed me a business card with the website address to see my photo. (Yes, this was marketing before apps were a thing.) Let me list it this way:

  • My photo was taken because I happened to walk down a particular sidewalk at precisely the right time.

  • I went on website #1 because I wanted to see my impromptu photo.

  • I went on another website (website #2) because an online friend from website #1 told me about it.

  • I met my future husband on website #2.

  • Here we are, after spending the last 22 years together.

My life was forever changed because I happened to walk down a sidewalk at the right time.

That is crazy to think about. Think about something significant in your life and walk it back. All the way back. Chances are, you will find a scenario like mine above. Something insignificant sets off a chain reaction that leaves you forever altered. What would have happened if that initial impetus did not occur?

Pay attention to the random because there is inherent good in the unexpected. Particularly the small, easy to overlook occurrences. Whether you believe in the butterfly effect or not, small things have the power to forever change life as you know it.

As you go about your day, crossing things off the list and making plans—pause. Pause when you get a surprise referral. Pause when you get a message from someone long ago. Pause when a surprise act of kindness comes your way. Pause when a sudden memory overtakes your senses. It is in those moments that the universe is trying to tell you something.

The meaning may not always be immediately clear, so be patient. If you are aware that a message is coming, you will be more likely to receive it.

The flip side is that sometimes the message being relayed is to get off the track you are on. A couple months ago I was working on a story. A really great story. One that I had queued up for a particular competition. But every single time I planned to write the ending or work on editing, something prevented me from doing so. Every…single...time. And each time, it was something different. A migraine, last minute errands, other work, you name it. I finally stopped because I realized that for whatever reason, the universe was telling me that this submission to the intended recipient was not meant to be. I let the deadline pass, and then picked it up again. Lo and behold, once the deadline passed, I was freely able to take it back up without hindrance. I wound up submitting the piece to other recipients.

We may not always know why things happen the way they do. Have faith in the universe. Keep your eyes and ears tuned to the frequency of the unexpected.

Chaos (ˈkeiɑs) noun

  1. a state of utter confusion or disorder; a total lack of organization or order

  2. any confused, disorderly mass

  3. the infinity of space or formless matter supposed to have preceded the existence of the ordered universe

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