You’ve probably heard of the butterfly effect—the butterfly effect refers the fact that a small event can have large and far-reaching consequences, ones that are often quite difficult to anticipate. I wish to illustrate the truth of this proposition with a painful example from my youth.
In first grade, my best friend was Alex Schwartz.* We sat next to each other, ate lunch together, played together at recess—I even helped him through a very tumultuous relationship with Paula Spelling, who never knew what she wanted, mostly because she was six. After several months of this, our friendship had grown quite deep. Naturally, I assumed that we’d be continue to be friends for many years to come. But what I hadn’t counted on was that one day, during story time, I was going to sneeze right on Alex’s face.
I’ll never know what caused me to sneeze that day—a floating particle of dust, an allergen, perhaps an unwelcome gust from some distant butterfly’s wing. Regardless, the need to sneeze, combined with poor reflexes and an inability to think quickly, had disastrous implications for Alex’s face, which bore the brunt of the assault.
I sneeze-massacre Alex’s face. Alex is not happy. Fair enough, I wouldn’t be either. But Alex is so pissed at me, he decides he doesn’t want to be my friend anymore. Now, kids say that to each other all the time, but Alex meant it. He wouldn’t have anything to do with me from that point on. Don’t you think you were overreacting a bit there, Alex? I mean, sure, what happened was gross. No one was glad that went down the way it did. But it was clearly an accident; I clearly tried to turn away. It’s not like I yelled, “Hey bitch!” and then blasted you full force. I explained all this to him, on the verge of tears. I begged him hysterically to take me back. Bitch. Did. Not. Care.
This broke my tiny heart. In a letter, Rousseau says, “I do not need particular friends, but when I have them, I greatly need not to lose them, for if they break away, they tear me apart.” That quotation fits pre-adolescent me quite well. I’d never lost a friend before, and the experience was gut-wrenching.
Captain Dickbarn and I went our separate ways and didn’t speak to one another again. I still didn’t understand how one sneeze could have such a dramatic effect. Little did I know, I had not yet experienced its full consequences.
Ten years later, I was in high school. I had to take band my freshman year, at my parents’ well-intentioned but entirely misguided insistence. My school was large, so there were several bands. One day, we were at a band festival (I had to go to band festivals; thanks, Mom and Dad), watching one of the other bands from our school play. Well who should I see on stage, playing his instrument like an asshole, other than Alex “Throw Me in a Fire” Schwartz?
Had I forgiven Alex at all in the intervening years for devastating my social life and stomping my heart to bits? Not remotely. So I turn to the girl I’m sitting with and say the following.
Shawn: You see that guy with the bassoon all the way on the right? That’s Alex Schwartz. He’s a terrible human being. Everybody hates him.
Girl: Why’s everybody hate him?
I had no idea. Because the “everybody” in question was, for the most part, me. Also, I hadn’t had any meaningful interaction with him for a decade. Not that any of that was going to stop me.
Shawn: Because just look at him. Terrible. The way he holds that bassoon. Like he loves it. I bet he wakes up every morning, and the first thing he thinks is, “I’m Alex Schwartz, and I get to rub my stubby troll-fingers all over my bassoon today!” If you love your bassoon so much, Alex, why don’t you kill yourself with it?
Girl: Man, you really hate that kid.
Shawn: Not just me, everybody. God, look at that stupid turtleneck! “I’m Alex Schwartz, and I looooove this turtleneck. My favorite thing in the whole world is to look like a soulless, dead-eyed tortoise, so every morning, I waddle to my dresser and—”
At this point, the man in front of me begins to turn around. I start to work up a rejoinder to the “Would you please keep it down?” that I’m sure I’ve got coming.
Instead, this happens.
Man: That’s my son.
Now this is awkward. The situation I found myself in sucked for a variety of reasons. First of all, I’m now face-to-face with the father of this kid I’ve been trashing for minutes just because he hurt my feelings when I was six. Second, I had extremely fond memories of Alex’s dad, who used to come in to our class on occasion and read to us. So, instead of that clever rejoinder I was working on, all I could think was, “The last time I saw you, you were reading us a story about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and I loved you… and now boy are you scowling at me.” This was the time for a graceful apology. But I was a little overwhelmed. What came out was more like this.
His father holds my gaze for another minute, just in case I have something to say for myself other than “fuh-derp.” I don’t. He turns away in disgust. I sink about as far down in my chair as I can for the rest of the performance, which the girl next to me spends in violent hysterics. It was probably one of the most embarrassing incidents of my life. And all this because of a sneeze.
* This is not his actual name. Alex, wherever you are, dude, seriously, I’m not sorry at all. You were a dick to me. I’m going to sneeze on your firstborn.