by Emile DeWeaver
I can be a cultist when it comes to good books that blow my mind. I persuade friends and strangers alike to read them, then wait for them to return with gleaming eyes, ready to join me in the mission of spreading literature. I read Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, and a week later, I was spreading the gospel of Sanderson.
I have a new gospel: The Butterfly Effect, by Andy Andrews. This is not that horrible movie starring Ashton Kutcher, and it has nothing to do with science fiction. Ready for the pitch?
It’s the most impactful book I’ve read this year. I read it from page 1 to page 109 in 20 minutes, and with a median word count of 34 words per page, the book is the size of a picture frame. Concise, right? It gets more impressive. Even in its compact form, The Butterfly Effect tells not one but five stories. True stories that make the most compelling argument I encountered in 2015. In 2014. In 2013, even.
Anderson’s argument: Everything you do matters. Not just to you or your family or your hometown, but to “all of us forever.” Although I believe in the interconnectedness of humanity, I met Anderson’s claim with a smile I usually reserve for clumsy children, thinking, how sweet. Cue the inspirational music while I recline on this cloud and sprinkle sentiment on my pie. But Anderson grounds his claim in science and history. Though his claim is hyperbolic, exaggeration has its place in effective communication. Hyperbole aside, in a world where many feel dwarfed by the problems we face in our lives, in our nation, and in our world, Anderson’s take-home message is the most important thing for a human being to know. (Yes, more important than knowing how to chew food, speak English, and turn the channel to The Walking Dead.)
If I were to reframe Anderson’s message, I’d say history shows us that small actions can have big consequences, and since we don’t know which of our actions will ripple through time and change the world, we have to treat every act as though it can change the world. More importantly, we must know that what we do can result in exponential change on this planet, in ways we can never imagine in the present moment.
The Butterfly Effect begins with the story of Edward Lorenz, a man who was laughed out of the New York Academy of Science in 1963 for theorizing that a butterfly could flap her wings and set causative factors in motion that start a hurricane on the other side of the planet. Thirty years later, physics professors validated Lorenz’s theory with The Law of Sensitive Dependence Upon Initial Conditions. “Science has shown the butterfly effect to engage with the first movement of any form of matter—including people,” Anderson explains in the book. The remainder of the text deals with people who’ve engaged the Butterfly Effect, people whose actions unexpectedly influence how we live our lives today.
During the battle of Gettysburg, a professor of rhetoric named Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain led four score exhausted soldiers to victory against three southern regiments. The professor had been charged with holding a strategic position so important that if he lost it the Union would lose Gettysburg completely. Chamberlain had started the morning with three hundred soldiers but by the time he made his last stand, he commanded just eighty men. They were out of bullets. No cavalry would come to save Chamberlain—his commanders were dead—and the rebels had received reinforcements from a fresh regiment. Faced with defeat, Chamberlain decided to do an amazing thing, ordering a last-ditch bayonet charge to save the left flank of the hill at all costs. He said later, after his extraordinary act, “I had, deep within me, the inability to do nothing.” Chamberlain’s deep inability to do nothing won the battle within a five-minute span and, historians say, won the Civil War.
According to Anderson, historians agree that if the South had won the Civil War, North America would look a lot more like Europe, with a dozen or so countries pursuing disparate interests. Consequently, when Hitler started World War II and allied with Japan, there wouldn’t have been a country powerful enough to win two wars on two fronts. “The United States of America exists as it does today because of single man,” Anderson posits.
Anderson is a masterful storyteller, but absolute statements like the one preceding are where he comes closest to deflating my excitement for his message. Even granting that a southern victory in the Civil War would have split us into multiple countries, any number of events might have led us to unite to face Hitler. I don’t object to Anderson’s hyperbole because, whether or not we’d be living in land conquered by the Nazis, the point that Chamberlain’s action made our current nation possible stands.
Anderson’s argument: Everything you do matters. Not just to you or your family or your hometown, but to “all of us forever.”
Initially, I did object to Chamberlain as a good example of Anderson’s central claim that everything everybody does matters to all of us forever. How many of us will find ourselves leading an army, fighting for the continuance of our nation? But as I continued to read, the point became clear that it wasn’t that the teacher had led an army, it was that he decided to do the difficult thing in a predicament where many good and reasonable people would have chosen the easy thing.
The remaining stories interconnect causatively with the world-changing achievements of individuals whose lives can be traced to the legacies of individuals who came before them. He writes about a botanist who hybridized a corn plant that saved two billion lives (and counting). Anderson then connects the botanist’s success through two degrees of separation to George Washington Carver. But again, because Anderson is talking about historical figures who embody the kind of exceptionalism that earned them a place in our history books, he may as well be offering Conan the Barbarian as our inspiration to triumph over adversity.
In the end, Anderson plants his message in shoes in which anyone can walk. A farmer and his wife stand against terror and racism in the south. They do it for no other reason than the immediate demand to honor a black woman and to save a black child.
I saw the commonality in these stories. Though the people in each tale confronted different physical challenges, they shared similar solutions. They engaged in actions motivated by strong passions and principles. Chamberlain performed a miracle at Gettysburg because, in his (and the apostle Paul’s) words, “This one thing I do.” The botanist and George Washington Carver followed their passions, and the farmer and his wife followed their convictions. These figures didn’t always know their decisions carried global stakes, just as we won’t.
Sometimes I read too much existential Alfred Camus and tire of striving because sometimes I wonder, what’s the point? Next week, my great American novel will remain unwritten. Next month, social equality will remain on the mountaintop waiting for us to find it. Next year, I’ll still miss my kid.
I’m spreading the gospel of Anderson because when our human spirits fray against life, Anderson’s message reminds us of the point:
What we do matters.