The “Butterfly Effect”: The Unpredictability of Life and Our Choices

The “Butterfly Effect”: The Unpredictability of Life and Our Choices

At least once in our lives we justified a particular event by saying it was impossible to avoid, perhaps defining it as something inevitable that we didn’t see coming but that, one way or another, would have happened anyway.

“Fate” comes from the Latin word fatum (“that which is said”), which indicates some irrevocable decision of a greater power that decides things for us in ways that have no rhyme or reason.

Nowadays, what we simply call “fate” has earned a relatively figurative name: the “butterfly effect.” This nomenclature comes from a scientific theory that a small insect can, with a simple flap of its wings, trigger conditions that could cause a hurricane thousands of miles away. In this article, we will look further into how every event is connected to another, causing certain outcomes. At this point, a dilemma suddenly arises: are we able to predict certain outcomes of events? If every action we take has consequences, can we still somehow determine what the result will be?

Philosophy and religion interpret "destiny" according to different perspectives, without necessarily ruling one another out. It goes without saying that the concept of destiny has also been the catalyst of much artistic imagination of screenwriters and directors, authors and cartoonists.

Following the Second World War, film production began to pay more attention to social problems and the human condition, giving more depth and realism to the stories told and the characters involved. This was a result of this time being one characterized by an artistic and social rebirth following the war’s oppression of mankind. Then, in 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life by Frank Capra hit American cinemas, and it would go on to become a cult classic, depicting a story that has withstood the test of time.

Can you change the destiny of a man who is destined to fail?

George Bailey is the main character in It’s a Wonderful Life. Played by the iconic James Stewart, George is a simple man with a strong sense of selflessness and a spirit of sacrifice. Despite having dreams and aspirations that would take him far away from the small town of Bedford Falls, he founds a small company there and invests all his time in helping his fellow townspeople. He meets Mary and marries her, and they go on to have four children together.

Throughout the film, a series of unfortunate events happen to George Bailey which only further upset his economic and emotional stability. He ends up feeling not only dissatisfied with the precarious life he leads, but his debts with the bank begin to pile up. At a certain point, he’s on the verge of getting into trouble with the tax authorities. Eventually, he’s defeated and mocked by his adversary, Mr. Henry Potter, leaving him feeling powerless and convinced that he has let his life fall into an abyss and he’s dragging his loved ones down with him.

This deep inner unrest leads George to consider a last resort “solution,” as one last altruistic gesture that will solve his problems: he’ll end his life, leaving his family enough life insurance to cover the expenses of the bankruptcy, ensuring a stable future for his wife and children. When George is on the brink of giving up, that’s when the townspeoples’ prayers on his behalf are answered. They know how he’s been suffering, even after all he’s ever done to be there for them. That’s the moment when a man jumps off the bridge into freezing cold waters. George doesn’t think twice about saving this stranger’s life. But the man, as it turns out, is actually an angel named Clarence Oddbody.

The two spend time together as Clarence recovers from the cold waters, and George begins to tell him that he wishes he’d never been born – that the lives of those around him would have been better had he never lived. So, the angel transports George with him through an alternate reality of Bedford Falls that never had a George Bailey. All the good that George had done during his existence is erased, and consequently, the destiny of every person he ever met took a completely different, dark turn (including even a premature death).

How, then, can his life be considered a failure? George's choices have influenced the destiny of others, just as the choices of others have influenced George's destiny. When he goes back to the real world of Bedford Falls, he discovers that the entire town has done its best to help him financially, thus keeping his company from a financial collapse, allowing him to start over, and ultimately keeping him out of jail and with his family.

Do the actions of one individual affect the fate of another?

As It’s a Wonderful Life suggests, George simply couldn’t believe that his life would take a positive turn. He could never have predicted such a bright future after all he’d been through; however, our lives are unpredictable. That will always be a constant. Even in nature, we are continuously going through things that are hard to comprehend, which are studied and theorized about in order to give them some sense of meaning.

Edward Norton Lorenz, an American mathematician and meteorologist, was the first, in 1963, to coin the mathematical and physical theory according to which every single minimal action, even within a larger picture, inevitably has long-term effects that influence the outcome... Hence, the metaphor of the butterfly.

The concept at the heart of the butterfly effect has influenced not only scholars but also cinematographers, musicians, and writers. This theory suggests that everything in life is random and follows no decided path.

Sliding Doors , a 1998 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, is perhaps among the first to simplify the theory, making it just as impactful and understandable on-screen as It’s a Wonderful Life. The director, Peter Howitt, created two parallel dimensions in which the characters’ lives went in two different directions based on the choices they made.

It’s very similar to Frank Capra’s masterpiece. The protagonist Helen’s life unfolds in two different ways, depending on whether or not she boards the subway. The differences between the two lives trigger unforeseen dynamics completely opposite from one another.

How many crossroads, perhaps unknowingly, do we come to every day?

Just as portrayed in Sliding Doors, we might ask ourselves when we, too, might have come to a crossroads in life. It makes us wonder if – and how much – our destiny is influenced not only by our own actions, but also by others’. A fortuitous encounter is the consequence of other fortuitous circumstances.

Mr. Nobody (2009) depicts how a Brazilian man’s decision to make a hard-boiled egg ends up creating a change in temperature which triggers rainfall on the other side of the world two months later, changing the course of events for the film’s protagonist.

"A single snowflake can bend the leaf of the bamboo."

The film written and directed by Jaco Van Dormael, Mr. Nobody features the brilliant Jared Leto – among others. This film tells the story of a man who is somehow aware of the many fates he could have chosen for his life.

In the film, set in the year 2092, children know the entire course of their existence before they are even born, only to have their memories erased when they come into the world. The main character, Nemo, somehow doesn’t undergo this treatment, so he’s left with the knowledge of how the rest of his life will unfold. He can arbitrarily make one choice instead of another, since he knows the consequences of every single action before he makes the slightest move.

The many destinies that Nemo experiences – or rather tells, since he has seen them but not yet experienced them – will not, however, be chosen by him. He decides not to choose… which, in a way, denies all the possible alternatives and leaves room for a new, unforeseeable fate.

Constantly questioning ourselves about the motivation and the nature of our destiny can create an underlying conflict causing us to not fully enjoy the present. Nemo has come to know every version of himself, which ultimately makes him prefer being nobody in particular, since he thinks it’s the only way he can fully experience life.

All these films, in some way, allow us to better understand the concept of the "butterfly effect" and its consequences. George and Helen are the protagonists of two films that highlight, in the clearest possible way, the butterfly effect in everyday life. The former displays the butterfly effect through a chain of events that cause him to lose his stability, only to be rewarded by this phenomenon, which ultimately gives him exactly what he gave in his life. The latter shows the butterfly effect through double vision with seemingly no consequence but brings about the beginning of two completely different lives.

The lesson we can learn from Nemo's experience, however, is that the unpredictability of life is not an obstacle – rather, a necessary course. The genuine feelings that are triggered by unexpected actions and events resonate differently, allowing us to grow, mature, and progress as human beings.

It is vital we do not live in fear of making decisions. Fear of consequences is permissible in so much as it brings us to judge and discern, but it must not become an anchor which holds us down in the same place, never allowing us to set sail.

Edgar Lee Masters wrote:

“To put meaning in one's life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire--
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.”

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