Observations: The Christmas Butterfly Effect

Published on: December 22, 2010

By Mitch Traphagen


The concept of the butterfly effect is that small changes – even the flapping of a butterfly’s wings – may produce big differences in the long run. That effect is amplified at Christmas.

I have known Sue since childhood and she has been a friend for as long as I can remember. After high school, I began wandering around the country and the world and lost touch with almost everyone I grew up with. Through the magic of Facebook, I have recently been reconnected with my friend Sue.

Over the years, she married, had children, and settled near our hometown. She is an instructor at a community college and an artist, making beautiful handmade jewelry she sells on the web. Each piece is one of a kind — and I’m certain that each contains a small part of her heart. She is a good person.

As my journey aboard the boat stretched into weeks, I received an email from her with an idea. Since I’ve been away from home for so long, she thought it might be nice for me to send something to my wife, Michelle — just a little surprise to make her day. She asked what colors and styles Michelle liked and from that, she made a beautiful set of earrings and a necklace — unique and one-of-a-kind art that is beyond compare. She then asked me to come up with a personal message, something that would let Michelle know that it came from me. I told her that all it needs to say is, “ILUSG”. That is how I often end emails and text messages to Michelle. It is a G-rated, but private, means of communicating how I feel about her.

I wish I had been thoughtful and considerate enough to think of this — but I wasn’t. My friend Sue thought of it, made it happen, and then let me take all of the credit. Of course, I wanted to pay her for her work but she would have none of it. After a bit of browbeating on my part, she suggested two things in lieu of money. She wanted a photo of a lighthouse and she suggested that I purchase a $30 gift card and then give it to a stranger who appears to need it. What an incredible woman my friend Sue is. How incredibly fortunate I am to know her.

Last week I had the opportunity to drive through parts of North Carolina that are away from the coast and well beyond the tourism pipeline flowing with cash. I was taken with one small town in particular. The people who created that town surely had big hopes and plans in 1770 when it was founded. They undoubtedly envisioned a bustling center of commerce in a land that appeared to hold unlimited promise and potential. For a while, their dreams certainly appeared to come to fruition. And in recent decades, when a large garment factory came to town, the hope that spanned the centuries was likely renewed. But that hope is dashed now. The garment factory, what was once the source of many good and proud jobs, is boarded up and abandoned. What was once the centerpiece of downtown, a new car showroom with glass windows to display the latest and greatest automotive wonders, became a second-hand store and today even that is closed. Still, you can almost see the men in neatly greased hair, suits, and narrow ties showing off the latest Packard or Edsel. They were offering the fruits of the largess that life had once bestowed upon this small town. Working at the factory, perhaps working up to a management position on the second shift, was the pathway to the glory illustrated in the chrome and fin tails at the downtown car dealership.

That there was once wealth in this town that time forgot is obvious in the large, stately homes. That there is now poverty is equally obvious in the many ramshackle mobile homes. The world has moved on past this town. The passenger train station still stands, but the tracks are gone. It seems no one comes to this town anymore; people just pass through on the highway.

This story is repeated in towns all over America — in Iowa, Georgia and yes, here in Florida. Dreams once so promising lie shattered in abandoned buildings and lost opportunities. People with nothing to look up towards, apply duct tape and plywood to cracks and leaks in their mobile homes and life goes on. The world moves on, without the slightest glance backwards, to the next and greatest thing.

Sue knows all of this. She can feel the people in her heart; she can see them in her mind’s eye. The $30 gift card is her way of doing something to help others. Even the smallest gesture, particularly at Christmas, is potentially significant. The “butterfly effect” from a $30 gift card is impossible to predict. It may well change someone’s life who thought that change was no longer possible — someone who may have thought that no one cared. What’s more, she allowed me to share in it and that in itself is a gift. She gave me the opportunity to do something good for someone else. I can take none of the credit — for neither the idea nor the beautiful jewelry she made for Michelle. Yet the warm feeling I have in my heart in doing this is an amazing gift that will remain with me for some time.

Thank you to everyone who placed gifts in Toys for Tots boxes or purchased a wished-for gift scribed by a child on a paper ornament attached to a tree in a superstore. Thank you to those who cook holiday dinners and give to those less fortunate. Thank you, Sue, for your heart, your friendship and the incredible gift you have given me. The lighthouse photo will be on its way to you soon but beyond that, my promise has been kept. Thanks to you, someone’s life in Hillsborough County, Florida, was brightened and perhaps changed.

Somewhere a butterfly is flapping its wings, making a difference thanks to all of you.

Sue’s jewelry can be seen at:  My personal favorites include the “junk jewelry”, containing pieces freshly hand-picked from the roadside.  Sue donates the proceeds from the junk jewelry to help fund college tuition for those in need.