Small Decisions

JD Stillwater
November 16 2022

By JD Stillwater

“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

—Jane Goodall

I remember the moment. I shuffled out of my Plant Biology class feeling adrift, feeling deeply the dismal gray day outside. “What am I doing here?” I stopped at a drinking fountain and when I looked up, there it was: a simple sheet of paper with large plain text: “The Great Peace March.”

Five thousand people were going to walk from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. to end the nuclear arms race. I stared. Then I turned and continued down the hall, but the idea grew. I could do this.

That was 1985. I did walk across the U.S., joining a band along the way. After The March, the band toured, where I met my spouse; we moved to L.A. to become rock stars; our family grew and the band dispersed, so we moved back east to a deep-green tree farm where I became a science teacher… each thing leading to another, then another—not in a straight line, but still a massive avalanche of life changes triggered by a single snowflake that took the shape of a small poster.

Many years later, I went back to school to study Physics and became excited by Complexity Theory, which tells us that complex systems are highly sensitive to imperceptibly small changes over time. This is sometimes called “the butterfly effect.” Little changes can snowball into massive impacts.

I’m astounded to realize that a sheet of paper stuck on a wall in 1985 is directly responsible for everything in my life today, indirectly affecting countless other lives, too. I wonder about the person who stuck that paper there. Were they running late? Did they agonize about the spot? Were they paid? One thing I’m sure of: they could not have known how much their simple act would change my world, and—over time—the whole world. I wish I could tell them how grateful I am. How many other little things have had a similarly profound influence on me, that I didn’t even notice? It lights up my imagination with wonder and astonishment.

Today I will make dozens of small decisions. I will never know their ultimate impact, though I suspect that some of them matter tremendously. If each one carries a snowflake’s worth of the change I wish to see in the world, in time an avalanche of justice, equity, and compassion will follow. Am I willing to feel some gratitude flowing back from generations ahead?

Prayer

Great River of time and change, for as long as I swim within you, let my simple daily gestures swell with others into great eddies of love and justice for generations downriver, today and always.