Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Butterfly Effect

The butterfly effect is a phrase that encapsulates the more technical
notion of sensitive dependence on initial conditions in chaos theory. Small variations of the initial condition of a nonlinear dynamical system may produce large variations in the long term behavior of the system. So this is sometimes presented as esoteric behavior, but can be exhibited by very simple systems: for example, a ball placed at the crest of a hill might roll into any of several valleys depending on slight differences in initial position.

Too obnoxious? How about:

Serial reciprocity:

This is a term used to represent the effect whereby the benefactor of a gift or service will in turn provide benefits to a third party. For instance, an artist supported by a patron may decide to serve as a patron after achieving financial success, thus passing the initial gift cyclically onwards to others.

Alright, alright. More widely known as:

Pay it forward

Pay it forward or paying it forward refers to repaying the good deeds one has received by doing good things for other unrelated people.

(all definitions can be found and studied in more depth on Wikipedia.

I went out to dinner last night with four dear friends. Three of us were divorced and the other was blissfully married, but not annoyingly so. We were meeting at a local Italian Ristorante. I was late to the party, but got there in time to enjoy a lovely already-allowed-to-breathe glass of red wine.

We had a wonderful time chatting about a variety of subjects. The first bottle of wine went down quickly and easily and another was ordered, a different vintage, a little “spicy”, and very well liked. The company was wonderful, the food was excellent, and the conversation lively. Great fun!

Suddenly and without warning we were hit head on by serial reciprocity! Someone “paid it forward”!

Upon bringing us the bill, Dan, our young waiter, explained that another guest had paid for one of our bottles of wine. Stunned by the gesture we looked about, saw no one we knew and so started grilling poor Dan relentlessly – “Who was it? Are they still here? Did she give a reason? Are you sure you don’t know her? Does she come here often? What did she look like? Did she leave a name? Where was she sitting?”

We learned that Dan did not know who she was, that she was no longer at the restaurant, Dan did not know her or recognize her as a frequent patron, she did not leave a name and she was sitting right behind us. She asked that we not be informed of her generosity until after she had left. The most telling piece of information was that she was a young woman with a series of tattoos on her arm. My three friends had all noticed her when she walked in and had each silently admired her body art. She sat in the booth behind us.

I am clearly too self absorbed to notice anything.

Dan admitted that never in his career in the food industry had he ever witnessed a true pay-it-forward moment where someone anonymously paid for a portion of someone’s meal. Having forced poor Dan to agree to call us if she ever came back in, we gave him a telephone number and turned the poor lad loose.

Excited speculation ensued.

Who was this nameless purchaser of wine? What was her motivation? Was she a wealthy socialite frequenting local eateries and gracing diners incognito? Was she amused at the sight of four middle aged women getting together for dinner on a Tuesday night and our animated chattering? Or was she touched by the quiet admiration of her arm d├ęcor and this was her way of saying thank you? Maybe someone just did something nice for her and she wanted to keep it going. I wonder if she sat in her car for a while watching and waiting to see our reaction to her kindness.

It is unlikely that we will ever find out the name of our anonymous benefactor. But the gesture was very sweet and we are determined that it will not be left at the door. We are determined, the next time we go out, to do something similar. To initiate a random act of kindness. And like the Butterfly Effect, perhaps the ripples of that act will broaden into something beautiful and astounding.

Or maybe it will brighten someone’s day. And that’s pretty beautiful and astounding.

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