There is a mathematical theory which states, in its simplest form, that small events can lead to many unforeseen big events, and because of that compounded effect of a very small initial change or event, you cannot predict anything when you are dealing with complex systems.
It is known as the Chaos theory, or also in popular culture as the Butterfly effect which says that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can impact weather patterns which can later lead to a tornado in Texas. It applies to things like weather systems, the stock exchange and even how our minds work.
One of the most vivid memories I have of this in action was one day when I was still in school. My dad and I were watching South Africa play test cricket against India in our small TV room on the farm.
Let me set the scene for you.
Behind us was a window. In front of this stood a bookshelf which was filled, instead of books, with bonsais and other potted plants. The sun was shining warmly through this window…
In front of this was the couch we were seated on, with the TV in front of us. Because my grandfather had added on this room as an extension to the original farmhouse, the ceiling here was lower than in the adjoining dining room.
Mum had a beautiful round engraved ball light fixture that was hanging from this ceiling, slightly lower than advisable, but not so low that it was in the way or that you’d hit your head on it as you walked past.
The cricket game that day was very tense as India was chasing South Africa’s score and our team was trying to bowl them out. We were on the edge of our seats.
And then Brian McMillan bowled a beauty of a ball and bowled out the Indian batsman, winning us the game.
He was overjoyed and as he ran down the cricket pitch he jumped in the air and did this sort of fist pump.
My dad and I also shouted in joy and in our excitement my dad also jumped up from the couch and repeated McMillan’s entertaining victory gesture, forgetting in that moment about the light.
As his fist pumped into the air it hit the glass ball hanging above with a good amount of force.
I can still see the glass ball travel, as if in slow motion, towards the Television in front of us. It stayed remarkably intact until it hit the corner of the TV where it shattered with a loud crack. Then there was the sound of a thousand tinkles of broken glass hitting various other hard surfaces and breaking into further shards.
Unbeknownst to both of us, our ginger cat Rooikat was lying on the bookshelf behind us, having a nap in the morning sun, dreaming of hunting small reptiles and such.
When the light exploded against the TV he startled awake from his pleasant daydreams and jumped in fright against the drapes – bringing down the curtains and knocking a few bonsais and plants off the shelf in the process. These plants also hit the ground and there were further sounds of glass breaking.
As my dad and I froze wide-eyed in shock, the scene around us changed from a tranquil morning watching cricket to all sorts of chaos and destruction in a matter of seconds.
All you could hear was the sound of breaking glass, and more breaking glass and still more breaking glass. It just didn’t seem to stop.
A small event across the ocean in India had had totally unforeseeable and chaotic effects in our living room. Needless to say, mum was less than impressed.
Chaos theory holds that dynamic systems, like the world we live in, are very susceptible to initial changes and shows us that even insignificant little things can have profound and meaningful and unpredictable effects.
This doesn’t only apply to effects or events we deem as negative.
In the same way, it must then also be true that small gestures of kindness, charity and love in our daily lives can also have unpredictable and big meaningful effects.
For me, the beauty of Chaos theory is that it shows us that by doing our little part every day to make the world a better place, we can also bowl cricket balls that have ripple effects far beyond what may seem reasonable, or expected, or predicted or even realised.
Just as Brian McMillan never realised the chaos he unleashed in our living room, we might also never realise or know what ripple effect the smile we gave the cashier behind the till, or the encouragement we offered a colleague, or the calm with which we greeted the taxi pushing into our lane, will have in the world.
But sometimes it will have an effect we cannot even dream of. It’s just proven mathematics.