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Stand Up and Be Counted: The Butterfly Effect

By Jeniene Matthews, English Faculty

If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything.   ~Chaplain Peter Marshall

It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act. ~Dalai Lama

Can the flapping of a butterfly’s gossamer wings, which occur over a flowerbed in Texas, result in a snowstorm in Ireland? While I know it sounds like a ridiculous question, experts on the theory of chaos say yes, it can. This phenomenon even has a name: The Butterfly Effect. The flapping of the wings represents a small change in the initial state of the system (the weather), which causes a chain of events that can lead to a large-scale phenomenon (a snowstorm).  This “Butterfly Effect” can also be analogized, I believe, to those little acts that we do that ripple out and make a difference whether we know it or not.  It is the idea that everything is connected, and a small change in one place can result in large changes later.  For example, Rosa Parks stood up for herself and we can see the wonderful ripple effect that has had on society.

How easy is it for people to stand up and be counted? I would say that it is not easy.  Not easy by a long shot.  Dante said, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.” The truth of Dante’s words is beyond doubt, but when the issues at hand are as sensitive and as volatile as race, gender, or sexual orientation, many often find themselves mesmerized by uncertainty. That feeling is not new in history, of course. Before Hitler gained power, many people stood at the sidelines not wanting to get involved, not wanting to rock the boat.  Freedoms were being taken away from people a little at a time and those that were unaffected stood back and looked the other way. They felt more comfortable minding their own business. They had their family and jobs to take care of. They didn’t like the uncomfortable feelings that controversy brought. Does that sound familiar?  And then there are those who believe that when oppression begins only those who are being oppressed have the right to stand up and object.

What is easy is to ignore prejudice when you have the luxury of doing so.  It is easy to overlook, neglect, and breeze over things that do not directly concern you. It is even easier to ignore your own privilege, to dismiss obvious inequalities under a countless number of justifications and excuses, because in so doing, you rid yourself of the only humane course of action — to take a stand for something. Sure, it’s easy to continue pretending (especially to yourself) that you are “open-mindedness” and “inclusive” (“Hey, look, I’ve got so many [x] friends!”), but you cannot escape the truth; it will always find you and test you in the most personal way.  What then will you do? What will you do when the “issue” is now a “person” that you know?  When it comes to justice and equality for human beings, there is no in between, no neutrality; passivity might as well be aggression for you are either for or you are against. Period.

As human beings, the more we connect to each other- recognize, explore, accept and even celebrate how we differ – the more we see of who we are inside of our own individual selves. Being an ally means considering the world from someone else’s point of view and adjusting our actions accordingly. It’s about being mindful in practice and not just in theory. It’s speaking up on behalf of those with whom we’re allied so they don’t have to, yet again.  It’s doing our part to make the spaces in the world we occupy safer and mutually supportive.  So I call on you. Push yourself. Check yourself. And grow, via a healthy balance of stepping out of your comfort zone, listening, asking questions, and seeking new ways to learn about the struggles (and victories) of others. If you don’t do this — become a more purposeful ally to someone else – then at least do it for yourself.

We are only true revolutionaries when we seek to find that commonality in all that we do. After all, the sign of a true change-maker is one that strives to understand the world as interconnected — and passionately believes that her every action has ripple effects on everyone she touches, even if the ripples are invisible. Just like the butterfly.

Jeniene Matthews is a member of the English Department.  She teaches a popular VI Form elective entitled “Literature on Trial,” which taps into her years of experience as an attorney, and she is the assistant coach of girls’ varsity basketball and head coach of girls’ thirds field hockey.  She lives on campus with her husband, Greg, and their son Logan.

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