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The Butterfly Effect

Is it possible that the small things I do can make a difference all over the world and into the future?

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit an exhibit at a local church. I was guided through the life of a child living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Step into Africa, a World Vision Experience: AIDS. Olivia, whose life I followed, is real; her name has been changed. Having already lost her parents and a sibling to the AIDS epidemic, Olivia experienced more heartache when a man invaded her home and raped her. She became pregnant and had a son. Soon after, Olivia was raped a second time by the same man and gave birth to a second child—a girl. This time, she went to a clinic and found that she and her daughter were HIV positive; her son was not. Olivia and her daughter may die, and her son will be left to fend for himself.

As I walked through the burlap curtains dividing segments of Olivia's life, I saw what may have been her house. I looked at nameless photos and read staggering statistics on the burlap walls, and I listened to Olivia's story on an iPod, hearing her cries for help as she was raped. I thought, How does something like this happen? This is a child! If this were to happen in our country, it would be headline news. In places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Olivia lives, it happens often. There is no reporter, no camera crew in a Winnebago on the front lawn, no detective on the case.

At the end of the recording, I helplessly turned in my iPod. There should be something more to be done. It can't just "be over." But it is. I reached into my purse to get my car keys and noticed a note card with a butterfly on it. I'd put it there as a reminder of The Butterfly Effect, and that there are always consequences to my actions. Some consequences aren't so bad, but more often than not, they affect us in ways we can't imagine.

Is Making a Difference Possible?

Actor and director Ashton Kutcher made The Butterfly Effect a hot topic not long ago in a couple of movies with the same name, but it was in the 1960s that meteorologist Edward Lorenz first introduced it. While studying weather patterns, he noticed that even the smallest variation in the wind's velocity and trajectory would, over time, severely affect a weather system. Since weather systems travel, it could be said that the flap of a butterfly's wing could affect the weather thousands of miles away. The altering of individual weather patterns affects the climate in general, which, in turn, affects bird migration patterns, which, in turn, affect plant pollination and ultimately, the life cycle of our planet's ecosystem. That's one heck of a butterfly.

How can something so small, doing what comes naturally, adversely affect my world, and Olivia's, a thousand or even only a hundred years later? How can we even tell that it has? When dominos are spaced just far enough from one another, and angled perfectly in relation to one another, we can knock the first one down and see each reaction in the chain. The Butterfly Effect happens on a much less tangible scale, over many years. We can see a butterfly, or we can see a flower bloom. We don't know it wasn't originally meant to bloom at that time, because we didn't write the rule book, and we can't point to dominoes and say, "See, that's how it happened," but according to The Butterfly Effect, it did happen.

I can't help but think of Olivia and her children. Their "wings" are so much bigger than a butterfly's. If a butterfly's wing makes this kind of a difference, how much more drastically is our world changing when we lose a child? The "flapping" of an entire life will never take place.

In his book Christianity for Modern Pagans, philosopher Peter Kreeft writes about this connection we have to others: "Gravity is universal. Every particle of matter in the universe 'loves' and gravitationally affects every other particle of matter in the universe, and we can calculate exactly how much if we only know their mass and distance. How much more must there be a universal physical gravity. When you … say a loving and helpful word to your family, some martyr three thousand miles and three hundred years away may receive enough grace to endure his trails because of you. And if instead you sin one more time this afternoon, that martyr may weaken, compromise, and be broken …. If there is a universal spiritual gravity, if we all help or harm each other, there must be some one straw that breaks the camel's back, one vote that decides the election. Everything matters."

We can't undo what's already been done, or bring back those we've lost. But we can do something to protect those who still cling to this life—those like Olivia. Even though we may never know her, she needs us and we need her. By changing how we care for and love one another, can we prevent further damage to the family God entrusted to us?

Seeing Only What I Want to See?

Recently I returned from a trip to Tanzania where I met a young woman named Aisha. Orphaned as a child, she was taken in by a widow who raised her and kept her safe from harm, but who was unable to give her an education. At the age of 15, Aisha told a local missionary that she wanted to attend school. The missionary provided her with the funds required for tuition and the mandatory uniform. A few days after school began, she returned to the missionary, asking if there was anything she could do to pay for her education.

When I met her, Aisha was 19. She's been attending school for four years, and she waters and weeds the mission grounds weekly to earn her education. The widow who raised her gave Aisha an opportunity to live and gave her a strong work ethic that is paving the way for her future. She was given the opportunity to put that work ethic into action by a local mission. The "flapping" of her wings has just begun, and she's setting an example for others in her situation, as well as serving as encouragement to the missionaries who can see, through her, that their work is fruitful.

And, yes, she has affected me as well. A picture of Aisha sits alongside the butterfly in my purse. I look to her for encouragement when I think my life is tough, and as a reminder that there are consequences to my inactions as well as to my actions. She's one of the characters in God's story, and for me she's playing a primary role as my part of the story wouldn't be the same without her.

The butterfly has its place too. We don't mind it landing on our nose. It doesn't bite, and its wings are pretty. But it lands in the same filth-ridden mud puddle that mosquitoes and stink bugs and all sorts of nasty things land in. And if you look closely, beneath its wings, it still has bug eyes and legs. I keep the butterfly card, now, as a reminder of how easy it is to see only what I want to see and ignore the bug on the end of my nose.

I met Olivia on an iPod and remembered that God is writing his story. He gets to choose the characters, one of whom I met in Africa. This should call us to action. There are many "Olivias" in Africa, but there are many "Aishas" too, and I know of at least one widow and one missionary who have answered this call. And the result is that one of God's main characters will get to play her part in overcoming the winds of change.

Robin Gregory is an art framer and writer who lives in Illinois.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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