Friday, October 30, 2009

Butterfly Effects: The Power of our Choices

On my quest to share my 'joie de lire' with blog readers, I'm beginning to find my voice as a blogger.  When I first started the blog, my ideas for what I should include were scattered, and I started keeping a journal-type document on my computer where I listed all the brainstormed ideas that came to me.  At first, they were all strictly about memories of reading and why reading is important to me (hence the name of my blog); the more I brainstorm, though, the more I realize what I want to say about books deals with how they inspire me to think about the world around me.  My dream philosophy course would be to read novels and discuss how the themes, the situations, and the characters play into our current ways of thinking.  So my vision for the blog has shifted from me telling my readers why I love reading to beginning a conversation about what reading teaches us.  After all, what is reading if not learning?

Last Friday I posted An Unlikely Trio: Harry Potter, House, and Mother Night.  In it, I explored the notion that our choices are what make us us (rather than our dispositions or situations in life).  I must like unlikely trios because I've found yet another trio for this week's posting: The Butterfly Effect, Quantum Leap, and Bitter Sweets.  As with last week, not all my sources for inspiration are books--instead, a book sparked interest on my part in an idea, and I then came up with other sources I previously hadn't thought of connecting.  Therefore, reading is also about connecting.  This week, I focus not on the choices themselves but on the consequences (whether positive or negative) of those choices.

The movie The Butterfly Effect came out in 2004 and starred Ashton Kutcher and Amy Smart.

The concept behind the movie was that Ashton Kutcher's character finds that he has the ability to re-visit his past and change decisions he made.  He then gets to fast forward his life back to the present and see how the change in decision affected his life and the lives of those around him.  The byline of the movie is "Change one thing. Change everything."  It's based on the notion (I believe it began in meteorology) that certain conditions have a "sensitive dependence on initial conditions."  I remember growing up hearing the idea that if a butterfly flutters its wings in South America today, the disturbance caused in the air could become amplified as it travels around the world and change the weather patterns, eventually causing a tsunami in Japan.  In the case of the movie, Ashton Kutcher's character was focusing on how he could change one specific traumatic event in his life, only to find that however he tried to change it, the results were catastrophic once the effects of one decision multiplied over time.  It makes you question how your choices of today are building the reality of tomorrow.

Being able to travel in time to change things that happened in the past is the primary basis of the TV show Quantum Leap, which starred Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell and aired in the late 80s through the early 90s.

In the show, the main character, Dr. Sam Beckett (played by Bakula), travels back through time to "change history for the better."  Oftentimes, his goal is small: persuade that girl to stay in school, get that dancer an audition for this choreographer, or stop that guy from going out.  But those simplistic sounding goals are often difficult to achieve--Sam has to think in terms of "I need to do X today so that Y can happen tomorrow, which will then result in Z in some future time."  In other words, he is charged with starting a chain reaction that results in big changes for that person's future.  Sam "leaps out" of the scenarios before he gets to see the results of his work, so he relies on his holographic guide, Al (played by Stockwell), who is Sam's only contact with the future and who tells Sam what his mission is, how he could best achieve that mission, and whether he succeeded.

What we learn from the first two is that every choice we make is like those butterfly's wings--our choices disturb the air around us today and gain momentum over time to provide a different landscape for tomorrow.  A book that explores consequences of our actions is Bitter Sweets by Roopa Farooki.

Farooki highlights the consequences of the characters' choices by first presenting a scene in which a character makes a small, yet monumental, decision and then jumping forward to show just how that prior choice affected the future.  One of the primary characters, Ricky-Rashid (his given name is Rashid; however, he prefers to align himself with his love for the English culture and uses the name Ricky), meets his "one true love" after he is already married.  He is sitting in an airport when he meets the new woman (Verity), and by choosing to take her to one of the airport restaurants, he changes the direction of his life.  However, he also chooses to only share half his life with Verity, which causes a whole different set of reactions (taken from page 61):

Ricky-Rashid knew at the moment that Fate had decided to be kind.  He saw himself leading a different sort of life with a different sort of woman--a life beautiful in its frankness and openness.  He would share everything with Verity, he would tell her everything she asked.  But of course, she would never ask about his other wife, or his grown-up daughter, because she would never know that they existed.

Many of the choices presented in the book are situations in which the characters have to decide whether or not they are going to tell the truth.  Farooki beautifully explores the life of lying without applying judgment to the characters through her fanciful descriptions:

... the language of lying, with its complex grammar and syntax and timing... (20)

... he reflected that spinning a lie was like spinning smooth threads of chocolate; it melted in the mouth sweetly, and made everything so much more palatable.  (110)

The question is often how lying one day is going to affect the character's future life (or the future lives of those around them).

When the characters find themselves in inexplicable situations, instead of attributing those situations to the results of previous decisions, the characters say they are in a particular place in life because of fate; the following passage describes when Ricky-Rashid first met Verity Trueman (taken from page 56):

Rashid would later say that it was Fate that had led him to love--Fate (and not frugality caused by squeezed corporate travel budgets) that had forced him to make this inexplicable airline interchange so close to his destination, Fate (and not rudeness on the part of her colleagues) that had Ms Trueman carrying excess hand-baggage to the Business Class lounge long before her plane was due, and Fate (not the location of the TV) that he had been sitting near enough to overhear her plight and help her.

This one sentence hints at all the overlapping of previous decisions--none of which had been made by the characters in question--that resulted in the current situation.  Ricky-Rashid's business sent him to London but refused to pay more for the direct flight, thus leaving him in the Paris airport for a four-hour layover.  He spent the layover in the Business Class lounge.  As he was in the lounge watching TV, a lady came in dragging three suitcases and carrying two handbags; the lady was Verity, and she had all the extra baggage because her colleagues took a client out to an airport restaurant and treated Verity like the bellboy, asking her to take care of all their bags while they were out eating and drinking.  She dropped the bags, Ricky-Rashid got up to help her, and the story goes on from there.  I find that many people throw around phrases like "it's meant to be" or "it was fate" simply because they don't have the time or inclination to fully explore why they are in a particular place or situation (or in some cases because they don't want to attribute any negative consequences to their prior actions--"it wasn't my fault; it was just meant to be").  The decisions we make are like the fine strings of a spider web--interconnected and often nearly invisible ... even as we are walking through the web and feeling the sticky strings wrap around our arms.

Happy reading .... and may your 'joie de lire' provide you the inspiration to make connections and learn about your world.


Eralda LT said...

I love the new direction just as much as the initial one. :)

I might direct some of my 132 students here, to illustrate synthesis of ideas between seemingly different pieces.

Farooki's discussion of fate and destiny reminds me of parts of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I am rereading at the moment. It sounds like a good read. Another item joins my must-read list :)

Jessie Sams said...

Thank you, Eralda (for loving the new direction and for thinking of the post as an illustration of synthesis). I am now going to look up The Unbearable Lightness of Being to add it to my growing list of books I need to read. Since you're rereading it, I'm assuming it's a good one... Unless you're masochistic and force yourself to reread only the books you hate, but I can't imagine you doing that. :)

Eralda LT said...

Haha...yeah, it's good, really good. Although, Kundera goes against everything they teach in creative writing courses :)

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