Are you the butterfly's wing that will change generations? Don't laugh.
"The voice of a single individual ... would have prevented this abominable crime from spreading itself over the new country. Thus we see the fate of millions unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, and Heaven was silent in that awful moment!"
So apparently, a key anti-slavery bill failed to pass in 1784 because some guy caught a cold or a stomach virus or something and missed a critical vote. We don’t know who he is or how he would have voted, but Thomas Jefferson seemed to expect he’d vote against legal slavery in all existing western territories.
Jefferson, despite being a slave owner himself, famously didn’t like slavery and was defeated several times trying to limit or ban it. The 1784 national bill would have kept Alabama and Mississippi slavery-free.
How different might the U.S. have become if Critical Vote Bob hadn’t gotten indigestion or something.
The story of the guy who stayed home to do the barf-o-rama or maybe keep within running distance of the outhouse comes from Thomas Sowell’s book Black Rednecks & White Liberals, a collection of essays on race, racism, the history of slavery, Germans and Nazism, and black education.
Whoever Critical Vote Bob was, he changed the course of slavery history in the nascent nation. He probably had no idea what a pivotal role he played in American history.
When you know what you did when you die
I drove to upstate New York two days after Friends star Matthew Perry died. A radio station host recounted his 2021 interview with Perry in which the star said people would approach him after the pandemic and tell him how much watching old Friends reruns really helped them get through a very tough time.
“You could just see his face light up when he talked about it,” the host remembered.
Perry was as famous for his addiction demons as for his role as Chandler Bing. He lived to help others overcome their own abuse. “I can tell which season of Friends it is by the way I’m acting,” he said. “That was a cocaine season. That was alcohol. Cocaine. Alcohol.”
He died in a hot bath and the cause of death is as yet unknown. Although I was never a big Friends fan, I have a soft spot in my heart for people struggling with substance abuse. I’m betting on a heart attack brought on partially by his drug-addicted lifestyle.
He died knowing he’d made a positive difference in the lives of others; not just those who escaped a dark time with his TV show but from strangers he helped for the asking. Perry would do what he could.
Not all of us are TV stars or influencers, and we may never touch millions, but I think even one changed life (for the better) makes a huge difference.
Sometimes the little, unremarked, butterfly’s wing of an act can change the world, permitting slavery to flourish in what will become the two most racist states in America, or helping others turn away from alcohol or coke.
I’ve written about how we all may have ruined someone’s life, or at least permanently impacted it in some way, and never knew it, like, in my article’s example, Brett Kavanaugh.
We never know how our actions, or our words, might affect others.
Kavanaugh’s nasty prank on another teenage girl might not have resulted in a career near-derailment if she’d been more inclined to shrug it off as him being an asshole. But each person is different.
It’s easier than ever to be an asshole in an age of often-anonymous social media. It’s easier to pour salt into a wound when you aren’t face to face. When you’re not witnessing their pain and suffering, and when it’s easy to forget they probably aren’t the monster you’ve mentally constructed.
It’s also easier to be more constructively helpful. If you choose.
The little things with giant ripples
If we can ruin someone’s life and not even know it, or change the course of history for millions of Africans on account of illness, we can also arguably be invisible forces for change, so anonymous even we didn’t know what we did right.
I was at a friend’s birthday party recently and encountered an acquaintance I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic. She recounted hearing me speak about ‘linguistics, AI and language translation’ and sounding fairly brilliant (her words, not mine), speaking from a ‘place of power’ as a woman in a field mostly populated by men. It was inspiring, apparently.
I wish I could remember it.
It dredged up a very vague memory later. Her assessment came from mistaking someone who knew just enough to be dangerous as knowing more than she does. But I don’t care, I’ll take it! Even though I had no power at that machine translation company, was brilliant in nothing, and learned on the job.
If I inspired another woman by appearing as a competent woman of power, I’m happy to have served as a (however unworthy) example.
I’m prouder that others have taken my written words to heart on not allowing men to maltreat them, and to take responsibility for their decisions. I accept that enthusiastically, especially if it results in a woman’s commitment to avoid or end the cycle of abuse.
Because here’s the thing: If I convince only one woman throughout my life to make better romantic choices, not only have I saved her from her own pain and suffering, but also her children’s, her future children’s, her grandchildren, and every succeeding generation after her who will now be a little different thanks to an ancestor who Just Said No, or perhaps No More, to abuse.
Because of something I wrote. Or said.
Let’s now consider her descendants: The peers they interact with, the students they teach, the strangers they help, because an ancestor they may not even be aware of made a decision to reject an ugly, detrimental environment and demand better.
This is how changing just one person’s life makes so much more difference than we can ever know. Just as, on the flip side, Brett Kavanaugh had no idea how much pain and suffering he caused another human being for thirty-six years.
As I ponder the people I’ve harmed, I think of all the ones I didn’t, the ones who thanked me for my conscious efforts, and the ones I never knew I helped. The ones I’ve forgotten about because we remember the negative things people said rather than the positive. Because women, especially, tend to embrace negative programming more.
“You need to learn how to take a compliment,” I told a female friend the other day. I’ve had many tell me the same.
As horrible and abusive as many social media denizens are, I know they’re also in pain, just as I’ve been in pain, just as I’ve written about the very real, undeserved pain the worst of the worst in the prison system are in.
The late Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh said there’s no one we should regard as hopeless. Okay, I’d like to see what he could have done with Vladimir Putin, but I take his point. Maybe not ‘hug a thug’ but try to lessen a person’s pain even if we need to keep them locked up.
If I saw a prisoner on the ground, screaming in pain from a broken leg - even if I knew he was a filthy rapist or murderer - I wouldn’t kick his leg to make him suffer more. I would show him mercy and call for help. He may be a lousy human being, but a good one wouldn’t torture him when he’s down. Or walk away.
How can we change the future?
I don’t know whether I’m silently changing minds for the better or simply shouting into the galestorm. I do believe my own personal social justice narrative is ‘better’, just as everyone from Trump to AOC believes theirs is. I know mine isn’t perfect and I try to stay open to new information.
Perhaps each of our paths for paving the way to a sincerely better society is to spread the beneficial energy far and wide, never knowing where it lands or how it initiates positive change.
I consider it my duty to speak evidence-based truth and to challenge delusional thinking. I suspect I can do more good sticking to ‘just the facts, Jack’ and not to besting some deluded asshole on XTwitter.
A few weeks ago I whispered into my mother’s ear as she lay mostly out of it in a hospital ICU. The aides had told me she’d been in great distress earlier because all she could think about were all the ‘thoughtless’ things she’d said and done over nearly a century.
I expressed to her how much she’d influenced my life and kept me from falling into abusive relationships when she spoke about the importance of never allowing a man to control or abuse you. She’d said to walk away without a second glance if a man hits you. She said never let a man control you. I told her I wrote blog articles about this and how I hoped to save others from bad relationships. I reminded her of all the people she’d been faithful to including many church people whom she helped. “Thoughtlessness doesn’t solely define you,” I told her. “We don’t remember all the helpful things we said and did.”
What would you want on your gravestone?
I don’t want mine to say, “She destroyed everyone she met on social media.”
The vast majority of us can’t change the world like Elon Musk or those who broker peace; we can’t save lives like the countless anonymous surgeons who pull off daily medical miracles and enable others to live longer, more fruitful lives. We don’t have the platform or the audience that Congress’s Grand Inquisitor Katie Porter, the Dalai Lama, or Barack and Michelle Obama have, but to quote Hawkeye from M*A*S*H when a bombardier he and BJ had shamed snarls, “Whatta you trying to do, change the world?”
"No,” shrugs Hawkeye with a smile. “Just our little corner of it.”
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