the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of
Antioch, 1st c. A.D
On Doing What You Can With What You've Got
In 1961, chaos
theory pioneer Edward Lorenz ran a numerical computer model designed to
predict the weather. Going for a shortcut when inputting the initial
condition, he used the number 0.506 instead of the fuller number of
0.506127. He'd run the model before, but to his surprise, the
differences in the results, all because of three fewer decimal places,
were hard to believe. Vast. What showed up was a completely different weather
than the one he'd seen earlier. He wrote, my emphasis:
At one point I
decided to repeat some of the computations in order to examine what was
happening in greater detail. I stopped the computer, typed in a line of
numbers that it had printed out a while earlier, and set it running
again. I went down the hall for a cup of coffee and returned after
about an hour, during which time the computer had simulated about two
months of weather. The numbers being printed were nothing like the old
I immediately suspected a weak vacuum tube or some other computer
trouble, which was not uncommon, but before calling for service I
decided to see just where the mistake had occurred, knowing that this
could speed up the servicing process. Instead of a sudden break, I
found that the new values at first repeated the old ones, but soon
afterward differed by one and then several units in the last decimal
place, and then began to differ in the next to the last place and then
in the place before that. In fact, the
differences more or less steadily doubled in size every four days or
so, until all resemblance with the original output disappeared
somewhere in the second month.
This was enough to tell me what had happened: the numbers that I had
typed in were not the exact original numbers, but were the rounded-off
values that had appeared in the original printout. The initial
round-off errors were the culprits; they
were steadily amplifying until they dominated the solution.
Out of that experience, he came up with the term "the butterfly effect"
describe how it's theoretically possible that a butterfly flapping its
wings in Japan could, maybe months or years later, ultimately cause a
tornado in Texas.1
The point of relating that fascinating story is to demonstrate the
power of small things. Architect Buckminster Fuller made the same sort
of observation about the power of the small when thinking about trim
tabs -- the tiny flaps found on the rudders of ships or airplanes. He
Something hit me
very hard once, thinking about what one little man
could do. Think of the Queen Mary -- the whole ship goes by and then
the rudder. And there's a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a
It's a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab
builds a low
pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all.
So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks
it's going right by you, that it's left you altogether. But if you're
doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your
foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go.
Think of it: a
tiny, little trim tab -- likely something most people are unaware even
exists -- able to turn around an entire 82,000 ton ship.2 And
old nursery rhyme that ultimately alludes to the ability of a
blacksmith to shape a nail out of iron and, thereby, shape the fate of
For want of a
nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Then consider the power of that blacksmith's mother, the one who bore
and raised him, allowing her son to grow up so he could become that
blacksmith who can topple a king's realm. Or think of his father, who
sired him. And the parents who bore that mother and father. And their
parents. On back to a couple who only met because she lost her cat, and he found it
and returned it to her -- a cat without whom that
blacksmith would never have been born, and that kingdom not lost.
On and on it goes, such that
what we do ripples out in all directions, and down through time.
It's easy to
give in to feelings of helplessness, especially if you're sick,
suffering from depression, lacking
in some obvious talent, poor, or have grown
old. But no one is
powerless. No one. Not even you. And the power of even the most
apparently helpless can be vast.
Consider the poor widow described in Mark 12:41-44:
sitting over against the treasury, beheld how the people cast money
into the treasury, and many that were rich cast in much.
And there came a certain poor widow, and she cast in two mites, which
make a farthing.
And calling his disciples together, he saith to them: Amen I say to
you, this poor widow hath cast in more than all they who have cast into
the treasury. For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of
her want cast in all she had, even her whole living.
When she threw into the treasury what little she could give, the widow
idea that the Lord of Lords was using her to set an example for others,
and that her story would echo down through the ages. But that's exactly
what happened. Though she was a "nobody," we remember her today, and
she inspires millions.
of Lisieux was a "nobody," too. Just a young girl, she
entered Carmel to devote her life to Jesus, and discovered the power of
Jesus set before
me the book of nature. I
understand how all the flowers God has created are beautiful, how the
splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not take away the
perfume of the violet or the delightful simplicity of the daisy. I
understand that if all flowers wanted to be roses, nature would lose
her springtime beauty, and the fields would no longer be decked out
with little wild flowers.
So it is in the world of souls, Jesus'
garden. He has created smaller ones and those must be content to be
daisies or violets destined to give joy to God's glances when He looks
down at His feet. Perfection consists in doing His will, in being what
He wills us to be.
St. Therese is now a Doctor of the
Church, teaching Catholics around
the world through her "Little Way."
Every small, kind act has the theoretical potential, ultimately, to "change the world."
A random smile at someone who looks lonely. A sandwich given to a
homeless man. Helping an old woman carry her groceries. I remember
once, when I was a kid, visiting a restaurant with my Mom. Our waitress
was surly, almost throwing the food onto the table. Very curt and
highly annoyed. When we were leaving, my Mom, who was not a rich woman,
left a relatively substantial tip on the table. When I asked her why,
she told me, "She seems like someone who could use some cheering up."
I'm not advocating for rewarding bad service, mind you, but something
in that waitress elicited my Mom's pity, and who knows? Maybe that
waitress had a much better night after that and,
go home to fight with her husband, who otherwise would've gotten mad at
her in kind, stomped out of the house, gone to the nearest tavern,
gotten drunk, and crashed the car on his way home, killing himself and
a family of four in the process -- one of whom could have been a future
President or Pope.
It can't be healthy to ruminate too deeply about such endless
possibilities over which we have no direct
control; to do so is to invite madness and scruples, and we have no
merit or culpability for things we don't directly will and for
consequences we shouldn't rightly have foreseen.3 But the
is made that we can either will to "put forth goodness" to ripple out
through space and time -- or not. And the larger point is that simply
considering the importance of our small acts and doing our best to keep
our will oriented toward the Good, the True, and
the Beautiful are
crucial. We must always try to do the
right thing at every moment. We must speak the truth when
necessary. At least, we must never lie.
On another level, even the smallest things we do for others are what we
do for Christ Himself. In Matthew 25:31-40, He tells us this very
And when the Son
of man shall come in His majesty, and all the angels with Him, then
shall He sit upon the seat of His majesty. And all nations shall be
gathered together before Him, and He shall separate them one from
another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats: And
He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on His left.
Then shall the King say to them that shall be on His right
hand: Come, ye blessed of My Father, possess you the kingdom prepared
for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you
gave Me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me to drink; I was a
stranger, and you took Me in: Naked, and you covered Me: sick, and you
visited Me: I was in prison, and you came to Me.
Then shall the just answer Him, saying: Lord, when did we see
Thee hungry, and fed Thee; thirsty, and gave Thee drink? And when did
we see Thee a stranger, and took Thee in? or naked, and covered Thee?
Or when did we see Thee sick or in prison, and came to Thee?
And the king answering, shall say to them: Amen I say to
you, as long as you did it to one of these My least brethren, you did
it to Me.
The obverse to this, though, is that evil and failures to act also
ripple out "into the universe" as well, and are also what we do to, or
fail to do for, Christ. Verses 41-46 continue with Our Lord's speech:
Then He shall
say to them also that shall be on his left hand: Depart from Me, you
cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his
angels. For I was hungry, and you gave Me not to eat: I was thirsty,
and you gave Me not to drink. I was a stranger, and you took Me not in:
naked, and you covered Me not: sick and in prison, and you did not
Then they also shall answer Him, saying: Lord, when did we
see Thee hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in
prison, and did not minister to Thee?
Then He shall answer them, saying: Amen I say to you, as
long as you did it not to one of these least, neither did you do it to
Me. And these shall go into everlasting punishment: but the just, into
Now, when deciding on where and how to focus their energies, so many
have "saving the world" and "thinking globally" as goals -- some to the
point of ignoring those right in front of them. While our actions may
have unforseen, profound effects, we shouldn't necessarily be focused
on grand gestures and vast undertakings -- at least not -- especially not -- if our own lives
are in disarray; we should be focused on the people and things
immediately around us.
Practicing the virtue of piety requires seeing the world in concentric
circles made of persons, with our greater duties owed toward those
inhabiting the inner circles, and lesser duties owed to those at the
outermost. Our first duty is to God, Who's found in the innermost
circle, at the center of it all. Then it is to our family in the second
circle. Then to our friends in the third. Then to our immediate
neighbors. Then to our towns, followed by our states and countries, and
only then to "the world." Before thinking globally, we should
concentrate on the center -- on God -- first, and then on our families.
If our relationships with them aren't good due to some failure on our
part, we've demonstrated that we
lack the wisdom and virtue to move on to the circle that comes next.
In other words, if your own children are being neglected while you're
trying to save "the children of world," you are a fool, ignoring your
primal, particular duties. If you're an oikophobe who betrays or
trying to "make the world safe" for this group of strangers or that,
failing. If you're trying to save a person or group at the expense of
those closer to you, you are not doing the right thing.
Stop. And deal with those whom God has put right in front of you.
See Christ in them, and know that what you do -- and fail to do -- for
them is what you do -- and fail to do -- for Him.
Know, too, that your doing your duty toward them, though an apparently
small thing, will make that one part of the world a better place for
everyone in it.
And know that, like a few decimal places, a trim tab, or a blacksmith's
nail, it may
"change the world" in the end.
1 Ray Bradbury
wrote a short story called "A Sound of
Thunder" (.pdf) about how one seemingly insignificant incident
changes the history of the world.
2 Another demonstration of how very tiny
things can have huge effects:
3 To really invite madness and scruples,
ponder the possibility that there are but a few people in the world on
whom the fate of the world depends. Consider the story of Sodom and
Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19) and how God said "I will not destroy it for
the sake of ten" righteous men. Consider how often we're told that if
we don't do X, Y will follow -- for ex., when Our Lady told the
children at Fatima that we must
repent and practice the First Saturdays devotion,
and that "If these things aren't done, Russia's errors would spread,
the Church will be persecuted, various nations will be annihilated, and
the Holy Father will have much to suffer."
Are you one of those
righteous few whose cooperation with grace prevents God from punishing
the earth? Would you have been one of "the ten" whose existence
would've spared Sodom and Gomorrah?
As an aside, religious post-Temple (Talmudic) Jews with a mystical bent
have a word for these
righteous on whom the the world's destiny depends: they believe that
there are thirty-six hidden righteous -- lamed vavnikim (lamed vadnik in the
singular) -- at any given
time, that they live quiet, hidden lives, unware of each other, and
unaware of who they, themselves, are and of their role in preserving
the earth by holding back God's anger.