The Butterfly Effect

By Leslie Morgenson, Good Work News, December 2002

The Butterfly Effect is a mathematical theory developed by Edward Lorenz in order to explain weather. It claims that a small change applied at a precise moment can effect dramatic changes in future events. The idea is that a butterfly flapping its wings in Mexico can be the initial cause of a hurricane in Japan. Scientific as it tries to be, this poetic and majestic notion seems more comfortable in the spiritual than the mathematical realm. As small and fragile as the butterfly seems, we yet consider how powerful its potential influence.

Of course, as with the butterfly, the same could be said of any of us. Not only are our possibilities great, but also we are often completely unaware of the impact of our actions.

The Butterfly Effect is a reminder of the delicate balance we walk daily. Though we rarely take the time to realize that our words (even a single word), our moods, our behaviours touch all the people with whom we come in contact, be it family, friend or store clerk. Minor actions can create major results. And, just like the mathematical theory, we cannot predict an outcome; we can instead be aware of the interconnectedness that is ongoing.

St. John’s Kitchen is a place where some would say people are more aware, more sensitized to the words and actions of others. We are in a position to witness simultaneously, random kindnesses and tremendous suffering. In many ways, everything that happens at St. John’s Kitchen can be seen as a measure of the kind of society in which we live. Someone’s contempt for the guy on the street says nothing about the guy on the street, but a great deal about the one who speaks often from a supposed position of comfort. Becoming too comfortable, as Pierre Berton wrote in his book, The Comfortable Pew, is more a curse than a supposed source of pride. Berton said that comfortable relationships and comfortable ideas (I am extending the idea beyond his immediate target, the church) create a self-centred lot who are no longer sensitized to the goings-on around them and their contribution or lack thereof to the common good. Arleen Macpherson, a former supervisor of St. John’s Kitchen, speaking for herself says, “I have a choice to put good or bad energy out there.” It’s essentially the Butterfly Effect again.

Around the food preparation table someone shares a story. While working in a grocery deli years ago, she offered a slice of bologna to a female customer’s child to help make the task of shopping more bearable. Throughout the years, the paths of the two women crossed and crossed again, eventually creating a chain of people and circumstances that brought a massage therapist to St. John’s Kitchen. With the Kitchener Downtown Community Health Clinic established weekly in the basement of St. John’s Kitchen, it offered the perfect venue for chair massage. An unpredictable response that started with a single slice of bologna.

The butterfly flaps its wings six hundred and twenty times a minute. Six hundred and twenty possibilities to change the direction of the wind.

Although it is sometimes difficult to trace the cause and subsequent steps of a fruitful event, I am in a position at St. John’s to witness small acts that are part of a larger chain of occurrences. I know the effect on 230 people since July 2002, of having The Record provide daily delivery to St. John’s free of charge. Receiving the newspaper every day was greatly welcomed by a community of politically minded and avid readers, as well as those searching for jobs and housing. One positive step in who knows how long a chain.

There has been a slowly evolving change over the years at St. John’s Kitchen, whereby the Kitchen has become an organization run to a large extent by the patrons who are the majority of the volunteer workforce. As such the patrons take it upon themselves to handle many of the situations that arise. Recently when an injured, bleeding man stumbled through the doors, members of the community tended to his needs with care and concern. It is an example of community at its best. But we also are blessed with the many gifts and kindnesses extended to us by neighbours who recognize St. John’s, not as an isolated island but an integral part of the community and therefore a fundamental part of the chain of events.

And I will never forget how I was changed during my first year at St. John’s Kitchen. Both of my parents had just died. I knew my Christmas was going to be difficult and I assumed I had come to a place where others might feel the same way about Christmas, namely, depressed. But when I asked Steve, Brian and Glenn how they felt about Christmas, I received answers I would not have predicted.

I got raised eyebrows from Steve who asked me, “How can you not enjoy Christmas? You’ve got a young child?” Brian said he worships Christ’s birth everyday.

Glenn told me it was a wonderful time. Christmas fills him with joy and allows him to think positively. A week later, Glenn asked me to sit down. “I’m worried about you. Why don’t you like Christmas? You have a family, you have a child. Why do you feel this way?”

It was the perfect beginning for me at St. John’s Kitchen, where giving and receiving is a two way street.

I was touched by their kindness, hope and resilience. That day and many days since I have felt and seen the goodness of the people of St. John’s Kitchen; grateful, too, that the people of this community were there when I needed them. After three years, I once again feel the goodness of Christmas. How could I not? As Arleen says, “It’s Christmas every day at St. John’s Kitchen.” A place where the Butterfly Effect has proven to be more than a mathematical theory.

To all of you who have cared for the St. John’s community, both within and outside, may your goodness be felt both by those close to you as well as in galaxies light years away. Your actions remind us that extraordinary results often flow from the smallest detail.

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