Monday, May 29, 2017

Little Things

This post is part of Blog March 2017, begun by the great Robin Renée, and is a movement for Freedom of Expression, Knowledge, and Information. Each day throughout the month of May, a new voice towards a better tomorrow. Yesterday's blog marcher was Bob Bruhin at LOVE in the Afternoon on May 28. Tomorrow's will be Anthony Lioi at Planetary on May 30. I can't vouch for what other marchers post; I'm endorsing free expression, not other bloggers' perspectives. 


I remember the moment. I don’t remember the date, or the time, but I remember the moment itself quite clearly. I came out of my Plant Biology class into the hallway of the Ag Education building, thinking to myself “What am I doing here?...” I walked slowly down the hallway, feeling to my bones the cold gray light coming through the windows from a typical fall afternoon in Ithaca. I stopped at a drinking fountain, and when I looked up from my drink, there it was.

Just a simple sheet of white paper, with large plain black text: The Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament. In smaller letters it told how 5,000 people were going to walk from Los Angeles to Washington DC. I stared. Then I turned and continued to amble down the hall, but the idea grew. I could do this.

That was over thirty years ago. In the years since, I walked across this continent and joined a political folk-music band along the way, which led me to a combination peace walk and concert tour in the Soviet Union, which some Russian historians cite as playing a minor role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. I met Ann and my stepson Christopher, who is himself now thirty. The band took us to California, where I learned how to build houses, Ann became a nurse, and we conceived Robin. Our time in LA made us crave green stuff, which led us to rural Ohio, and so on, one thing leading to another, then another, and another, but never in a predictable straight line. Each event reverberated forward in a spreading fashion, like a massive avalanche started by a single snowball. The astounding truth is that a single 8½ x 11 sheet of paper stuck to a bulletin board in 1985 is responsible for just about everything that is true in my life today, including the very existence of my daughter and her good work as a nurse and minister.

Can we even begin to measure the long-term impact of that flyer on the children I work with at The Circle School, or on the students I taught in Ohio, or all the people my children will ever meet or touch? How about the people their children will meet, users of my son's elegant code, listeners of his music, or my daughter's parishioners, or the people whose lives she saved in the ER, and so on?

Many years after that Fall afternoon, I went back to school to study Physics, and become excited by a  field of study called Chaos. Chaos Theory describes how later states of any complex system depend entirely on the exact arrangement at earlier times, and how even the tiniest, imperceptibly small change in those earlier conditions can ultimately make the whole system completely different. A butterfly flaps its wings in New York, and a typhoon hits Japan two months later. That’s why we still can’t predict the weather—every time you breathe, you change the state of the atmosphere just enough to totally rearrange the weather a month or two from now, because each air molecule bumps into the ones around it, causing them to move, which causes others to move, and so on. The atmosphere is thermodynamically connected to everything on earth. A butterfly, a cough, or the words “Good morning!” affect entire weather systems down the road. Little things change everything.

Air molecules affect each other by colliding, but there are other ways to be chaotically connected, like the force of gravity. Recent analysis of orbits suggests that moving a pencil from one side of your desk to another is enough change in the gravitational field to shift Jupiter halfway around its orbit a billion years from now. Your body is about ten thousand times the mass of a pencil, so everything you do affects everything else, and over long time scales, those effects really matter. [Get it? “matter”?! I am such a nerd]

I recently read John Michael Greer’s book “Dark Age America: Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead” and it’s bouncing around in my head. I recommend it. Greer makes a compelling and provocative case that we are a civilization in slow but now-unavoidable decline. Recent politics since the book came out bear witness to his urgings. And yet. I’ve heard it said that “prediction is difficult, especially if it involves the future” [haha; little joke there–not mine]. Our global civilization is an extremely (obscenely?) complex system, subject to the butterfly effect even as it is subject to the hard limits of the planet’s finite resources.

Human history is chaotic, too, but YOU are one of the initial conditions: leaving home two seconds earlier in the morning puts you in the 12-car pileup, or not; lets you meet your future spouse, or not; lands you your dream job, or not.  And each of those has consequences, and so on. Chaos theory can’t tell us the long-term results of our choices, but it does tell us that every choice is hugely significant. The future of everything is completely different because you are here doing this instead of there doing that.

A friend of mine heard me speak about this, and said, sarcastically: “Thanks JD. Now I can't even get out of bed in the morning!" Well, the first thing to get clear is that the butterfly is not responsible for the typhoon! The person who put up the peace march poster is not responsible for me marrying Ann! You are not responsible for what happens down the line when you could not possibly have foreseen the long-term chaotic results of your actions.

Secondly, I mentioned that orbit stuff not so you’ll worry about causing planetary collisions a billion years from now, but to emphasize our connection with everything, mediated by gravity, history, and the cumulative effect of small changes. We are part of a web of existence that extends to the edge of the known universe and to all time past and future.

So what are we to make of this incredible power we have, if everything we do could just as easily cause WWIII as end poverty? Well, if we go through our lives with our heads down, acting by habit or instinct, then the future will be what it will be, que sera sera. 

But in every moment there is an opportunity to bias the future to the good. The simple, little moments when we could make eye contact and smile at the cashier, make a silly face at a child on the street, or breathe deeply in bumper-to-bumper traffic rather than honking the horn. Miss the opportunity, and you're still incredibly powerful, but you're just one of millions of chips that will fall as they may. Seizing those opportunities starts with awareness: Who am I being right now? What positive, connective action do I have the courage to take right now?

The long-term effects of noticing and taking advantage of these moments is unknown, but cannot possibly be more bad than good, on the whole! It’s not an obligation, it’s a game, completely optional to play or not. But I’ve noticed that when I remember to watch for them, taking these little opportunities enriches my life, and that enrichment snowballs forward, too.

Chaos theory, when combined with mindful attention to snowball-sized opportunities to care and connect, gives us the godlike power to start an avalanche of goodness. Every moment in a lifetime is such an opportunity.

I like to think about the person who stuck that paper above the drinking fountain. Was she in a hurry, after a long day? Did he agonize about whether the drinking fountain was a high-enough-traffic area to be worth it? Had a friend mailed her the thing, and she stuck it to the nearest place just to keep her word? Maybe he was paid to put it there! One thing I’m sure of; that person could not possibly have known how much their simple act would change my world, and, through time, the entire world.  It’s the little things we do that change history. The little things. We have no idea.

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