big bad butterfly effect

butterfly perching on a sneaker
Photo by Mar Delgado on

Sometimes I fear causing change in the world–because what if me randomly commenting on, say, someone’s shoes has a lot of negative, unintended consequences?

See: the butterfly effect. A butterfly flapping wings in Peru might cause a tornado in Texas. A tiny change now might cause massive impacts in the future.

Unintended consequences stress me out. Not theoretically, like “what if there’s a tornado tomorrow?” but because I overanalyze my actions and worry about the consequences.

Like, my mind slips into spirals that if I compliment someone’s shoes, maybe they’ll look down at their shoes, and trip because of that, and smash their phone on the sidewalk. That’d basically ruin their day.

So I default to doing nothing. No shoe compliment, no tripping, no smashed phone, no ruined day. Besides, it probably wouldn’t mean much to them to have their shoes complimented (they’re just shoes, right?), so not saying anything is clearly the better option.

But then I hear stories about a random, nice compliment on a train helping someone finally feel valued or seen. Plus, when someone says something genuinely nice to me, that lightens the world for a little bit.

Only, then I feel slightly compelled to return the favor. Because if I’m not returning compliments, I’m guilty of owing people verbal praise, right?

So I go back to considering how to say something nice, like “that’s a creative thing you did there.”

But what if it secretly comes across wrong and deeply hurts their feelings because it brings back some emotionally traumatic argument from 7 years ago with their artistically inclined mother who they fought with all the time and they go home and cry and spend the next five years trying to rebuild their self-esteem?

We love anxiety cycles.

My question for today: how does one go about trying to do little bits of good in the world, without accidentally causing a lot of harm instead?

Do you default to doing nothing at all?

Or can you somehow accept that your good efforts may not always have good results?

But how can you accept that, when the good intent of an action matters much less than the effect–good or bad–it has on the person? Like, the person who goes home crying won’t care that I meant to compliment them, they’ll care about the resurfaced traumatic argument.

How do you accept responsibility for bad consequences of your well-intended actions?

…food for thought, I guess.

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