Butterfly effect

I don’t always know what I’m going to say until I’ve said it.  That best describes what follows.  This represents more a rambling catharsis for me than anything else, as much a directionless mental and emotional ablution as it is an attempt to communicate.

A black-morph female eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) banging on a budding tree (2010_04_10_053365)

“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”  Though the butterfly effect in fact first used a seagull flapping its wings as an example of how initial conditions in a dynamical system could vastly change the outcome, and though this was used as part of chaos theory where knowing the initial conditions of the system allowed one to model the outcome despite its complexity, I’ve always thought of the butterfly effect as being more appropriate for complex systems science, chaos theory’s unpredictable cousin.

In complex systems science, dynamical systems—large, complex systems—cannot be predicted even when the initial conditions are known.  The most common example of this is the weather, where generalized models, precedents and guesses make up forecasts while the actual weather remains truly unpredictable because the interaction of even the smallest things can vastly affect the outcome, and the same initial conditions can produce a different outcome each time.

An orange sulphur (a.k.a. alfalfa sulphur; Colias eurytheme) on a small aster flower (2009_10_23_032693)

Life—any life or life in general—is a dynamical system, a complex system, a system where every small variable can greatly impact the outcome.  Each event we face can alter our path: every hiccup in the fabric of normalcy can cause us to stumble and divert from our destination, every victory can turn us down a road other than the one we intended.  Who can say how different your life would be were one simple event changed in your past?

A Gulf fritillary (a.k.a. passion butterfly; Agraulis vanillae) feeding on a dandelion (2009_10_31_035393)

In late July I was stung by several wasps, an event that irrevocably altered my journey.  Being allergic to wasp stings—deathly allergic—meant several stings was a major problem.  Interestingly enough, however, the stings led to the discovery of an even larger issue, one far more dangerous.  And treatment for the wasp stings also slowed down the new enemy, an unexpected opportunity to react to the new assault.

But the newest enemy wasn’t to be deterred.  Instead of cooperating, it rebelled and became a bigger problem than it should have been.  Which resulted in my unexpected absence for a few weeks.  Yet even my return home would carry with it yet more unexpected turns.

A hackberry emperor (Asterocampa celtis) resting on a tree (2009_10_23_033250)

I sat at my desk several days after coming home, and I tried to catch up on e-mail.  That’s when I discovered that one of my close friends from high school had died in early November.  He was my age.  His death was so unexpected that the e-mail made clear that the cause of death was unknown at that time.  I was shocked and disheartened.  Michael had been the good friend in high school who read all of my early writing and who encouraged me to do something with it.  He mentioned to me several years later that he had spent much time watching for my name to pop up in book stores.  That he was gone so suddenly hit me like a punch in the gut.

Then less than week later another friend died.  She was in her nineties and her death came as no surprise, but it still hurt.  For as I’ve said before, accepting impermanence as a fact of the universe fails to soften the blow of death because we can expect it but never truly be prepared for it.  That her name was Glad carried a painful irony.

About a week after that my mother informed me that my father had fallen quite ill.  So sick in fact that he couldn’t sleep lying down because he would suffocate.  His health has been failing for many years, sure, and I keep telling myself that the call shouldn’t shock me.  Nevertheless, especially under the mounting circumstances, I wondered if this would be the turn for him.

And then just last weekend, just as I alluded to and wondered, my beloved Annie lost her dearest Jacques.  His decline had felt imminent, albeit coupled with the up-and-down unknowing that so often fills such times.  His suffering ended and her load relieved, it still felt like one more nail in the coffin, one more flap of the butterfly wings in my life, one more variable that would significantly alter the outcome.  Because in all honesty, I’d had my own downward turns coupled with so much death and so much bad news that I felt crushed beneath the weight of it all.

A male northern crescent (Phyciodes cocyta) perched in the grass (2010_04_10_053138)

So I put on a façade, a mask as it were, and found myself wandering aimlessly in what seemed to be never-ending shadow.  I smiled when I was expected to smile, I responded when queried, and I pretended.  Inside, though, where no one could see, I sank into the depths of abyssal despair.  For all the flapping butterfly wings in my life, it seemed all the change they offered was bad.

Yet more and more I had clarity of thought, something that eluded me for a while, and in that returning lucidity I received one more bit of news, this time about me.  The news was good, surprisingly good in fact, and received well ahead of schedule and in direct contravention of all the prognostications that had come before.  Things were suddenly turning around, a course correction thanks in no small part to the sudden downturn I had in late October.  The very bad thing had required very aggressive remedies that resulted in a very rapid turnaround.  Like, um, wow!

An American snout (Libytheana carinenta) perched on a dry reed (2009_11_26_041608)

There remains a long road ahead, one stretching years into the future, and I must travel that road before I can put these troubles behind me.  At least my own troubles.  But where there once was nothing but bad news, now suddenly there’s not just good news, there’s hope.  I had considered it a luxury I couldn’t afford.  Now it’s been thrust upon me.

And that leaves me feeling somewhat confused.  I want to leap up and down, at least virtually, which seems counter to the suffering of others that has piled up so quickly.  I feel selfish for not investing more in them right now.  I feel glad to know I might see the metaphorical road home more quickly than I thought, that I might step off the bridge to nowhere even though I feared I never would.

I’ve been on the edge, hanging from the precipice as it were, and the flap of a butterfly’s wings got me back on my feet even while it took so much from others.  At this time and place, in the face of conflicted emotions, I’m embarrassed to say that today, after hearing my own good news, all I could think about was how the smallest variable can dramatically affect the outcome.  All I could think about was the butterfly effect and how it worked to my advantage this time.

— — — — — — — — — —

Photos:

[1] Black-morph female eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

[2] Orange sulphur (a.k.a. alfalfa sulphur; Colias eurytheme)

[3] Gulf fritillary (a.k.a. passion butterfly; Agraulis vanillae)

[4] Hackberry emperor (Asterocampa celtis)

[5] Male northern crescent (Phyciodes cocyta)

[6] American snout (Libytheana carinenta)

16 thoughts on “Butterfly effect”

    1. You’re absolutely right, Scott. This was wholly unexpected good news that came when I needed it most (because honestly, I was gettin’ ready to go postal!).

    1. Thank you, Clive! I appreciate that. There’s still a long and tough road to travel (measured in years), but after recent events I’m as thrilled as you are that some good news came along. I needed it.

      And I love “cock-a-hoop”! What a delightful phrase. I’ve not heard it in ages, and seeing it in your comment put a huge smile on my face.

    1. I appreciate it, Amber! On both counts. I was growing rather frustrated with sour note after sour note, so a lively tune like this was most welcome. And thank you about the site face lift. As capricious as I am, I used to change the theme at least once a year but liked the last one so much that I left it for a while. Under the circumstances, though, I felt the time was right for a new look.

  1. So glad to hear that you are doing better. I’m moved by your thoughtful reflections on life…and death here and how you intersperse them with your gorgeous butterfly images. Peace.

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