We’ve all heard of the butterfly effect, familiar with the way a single action can ripple through our lives and well beyond. I’ve treated this rather coldly and academically, like something that happens in theory to other people, not me. That comes from big actions, like election results or seismic shifts. But recent experience has me thinking again.
Here’s a long story short of this phenomenon:
- Afghanistan falls under Taliban control.
- There’s an influx of Afghan refugees to the UK.
- This leads to a groundswell of support from the British public, mostly in the form of clothing and goods donations.
- A charity I work with is inundated with donations and needs volunteers to help sort through them.
- I head to the tube station to pull a shift sorting donations on a random Friday afternoon.
- On my way, I spot what seems like a stray dog, and fall in love with her. I am ready to adopt her or at least foster her until I can find her owners, right before finding her owners’ neighbour. I hand her over.
- I can’t stop thinking about this dog, until I convince my family to adopt a dog.
- Lucy now sleeps in her bed next to me while I write this, happy in a family home after years of racing. She’s sensitive, nervous around other dogs, and very sweet with people. She loves being outside, even just sitting there listening to the birds.
My husband and I sometimes joke about our ‘fall of Afghanistan’ dog, because were it not for that, I wouldn’t have been walking to the tube at that time of day, would not have met that dog, would not have had the desire to add a dog to our family rekindled.
The thing is, it doesn’t take much.
As I looked back over 2021, as part of reflecting and preparing for 2022, I realised how much my life has changed. And often, these changes started with the smallest of decisions, the tiniest of actions. Even getting involved in supporting asylum seekers began as a facebook post, and expressing an interest. Meeting up with other local people who volunteer in this work. Being paired as a befriender for a lone asylum seeker.
It didn’t happen overnight. I yearned to do more for years, but it was taking a small step, and the next step, and the next, that has led me to having a small but important part in supporting several people and families.
And this phenomenon has happened in several areas of my life, with the cumulative effect that is quite transformational.
We can joke about how in time travel fiction the smallest change in the past creates huge change in the timeline. And it’s true that a small change, on its own, won’t shift anything substantially.
But today – right now – is going to be the past soon. A small change now turns the kaleidescope, however subtly. It opens opportunities for another change, decision, or action. Which opens different opportunities.
Thinking about each decision, moment, and action as a link in a chain, we can decide what to do with a greater sense of perspective.
This afternoon I chose to write instead of clean the house. Cleaning the house would probably give me more immediate impact. But choosing to write as an act for me (and for you, dear reader), is a choice for my self care, a choice for a learning mindset (as I learn through writing), and a choice for connection, as through my writing I connect with others. The impact of that choice is greater, but only when I pull back and look at it over a greater perspective. In the microcosm of my one day, cleaning the house would absolutely be the most impactful choice. But over my life, writing or mutual aid work or activism or even play, has a far, far greater impact.
And the beauty of this really is that the choice, the action, the decision, can be small.
Don’t lose this point. The decision to write today isn’t going to result in a book deal. It’s just a blog post. The decision to enquire about helping asylum seekers won’t earn me a Nobel Peace Prize and it took months to actually get me frontline supporting people directly. It’s not the size of the single action, but the cumulative impact of many small actions, taken regularly and relatively consistently.
Little and often is more powerful than big but rarely.
The big stuff that other people tend to notice more is harder to sustain, whether it’s our activism, our hobbies, our self-care practices. But confronting injustice wherever we see it can shift the dial in ways a protest on the street may not. Playing one song on the guitar every day builds my skill more than one marathon session once a month. 5 minutes of meditation most days soothes and centres me more than a day’s retreat once a year – which is probably the most I could manage.
What small action can you take today that enriches your life and brings your values alive?