Widow’s Mite: On Doing What You Can With What You’ve Got

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In 1961, chaos theory pioneer Edward Lorenz ran a numerical computer model designed to predict the weather. Going for a shortcut when inputting the initial condition, he used the number 0.506 instead of the fuller number of 0.506127. He’d run the model before, but to his surprise, the differences in the results, all because of three fewer decimal places, were hard to believe. Vast. What showed up was a completely different weather situation than the one he’d seen earlier. He wrote, my emphasis:

At one point I decided to repeat some of the computations in order to examine what was happening in greater detail. I stopped the computer, typed in a line of numbers that it had printed out a while earlier, and set it running again. I went down the hall for a cup of coffee and returned after about an hour, during which time the computer had simulated about two months of weather. The numbers being printed were nothing like the old ones.

I immediately suspected a weak vacuum tube or some other computer trouble, which was not uncommon, but before calling for service I decided to see just where the mistake had occurred, knowing that this could speed up the servicing process. Instead of a sudden break, I found that the new values at first repeated the old ones, but soon afterward differed by one and then several units in the last decimal place, and then began to differ in the next to the last place and then in the place before that. In fact, the differences more or less steadily doubled in size every four days or so, until all resemblance with the original output disappeared somewhere in the second month.

This was enough to tell me what had happened: the numbers that I had typed in were not the exact original numbers, but were the rounded-off values that had appeared in the original printout. The initial round-off errors were the culprits; they were steadily amplifying until they dominated the solution.

Out of that experience, he came up with the term “the butterfly effect” to describe how it’s theoretically possible that a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan could, maybe months or years later, ultimately cause a tornado in Texas.1

The point of relating that fascinating story is to demonstrate the power of small things. Architect Buckminster Fuller made the same sort of observation about the power of the small when thinking about trim tabs — the tiny flaps found on the rudders of ships or airplanes. He wrote,

Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary — the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab.

It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go.

Think of it: a tiny, little trim tab — likely something most people are unaware even exists — able to turn around an entire 82,000 ton ship.And recall the old nursery rhyme that ultimately alludes to the ability of a blacksmith to shape a nail out of iron and, thereby, shape the fate of a kingdom:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Then consider the power of that blacksmith’s mother, the one who bore and raised him, allowing her son to grow up so he could become that blacksmith who can topple a king’s realm. Or think of his father, who sired him. And the parents who bore that mother and father. And their parents. On back to a couple who only met because she lost her cat, and he found it and returned it to her — a cat without whom that blacksmith would never have been born, and that kingdom not lost.

On and on it goes, such that what we do ripples out in all directions, and down through time.

It’s easy to give in to feelings of helplessness, especially if you’re sick, suffering from depression, lacking in some obvious talent, poor, or have grown old. But no one is powerless. No one. Not even you. And the power of even the most helpless can be vast. Consider the poor widow described in Mark 12:41-44:

And Jesus sitting over against the treasury, beheld how the people cast money into the treasury, and many that were rich cast in much.

And there came a certain poor widow, and she cast in two mites, which make a farthing.

And calling his disciples together, he saith to them: Amen I say to you, this poor widow hath cast in more than all they who have cast into the treasury. For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want cast in all she had, even her whole living.

When she threw into the treasury what little she could give, the widow had no idea that the Lord of Lords was using her to set an example for others, and that her story would echo down through the ages. But that’s exactly what happened. Though she was a “nobody,” we remember her today, and she inspires millions.

St. Therese of Lisieux was a “nobody,” too. Just a young girl, she entered Carmel to devote her life to Jesus, and discovered the power of the small.

Jesus set before me the book of nature. I understand how all the flowers God has created are beautiful, how the splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not take away the perfume of the violet or the delightful simplicity of the daisy. I understand that if all flowers wanted to be roses, nature would lose her springtime beauty, and the fields would no longer be decked out with little wild flowers.

So it is in the world of souls, Jesus’ garden. He has created smaller ones and those must be content to be daisies or violets destined to give joy to God’s glances when He looks down at His feet. Perfection consists in doing His will, in being what He wills us to be.

St. Therese is now a Doctor of the Church, teaching Catholics around the world through her “Little Way.”
Every small, kind act has the theoretical potential, ultimately, to “change the world.” A random smile at someone who looks lonely. A sandwich given to a homeless man. Helping an old woman carry her groceries. I remember once, when I was a kid, visiting a restaurant with my Mom. Our waitress was surly, almost throwing the food onto the table. Very curt and seemingly highly annoyed. When we were leaving, my Mom, who was not a rich woman, left a relatively substantial tip on the table. When I asked her why, she told me, “She seems like someone who could use some cheering up.” Who knows? Maybe that waitress had a much better night after that and, so, didn’t go home to fight with her husband, who otherwise would’ve gotten mad at her in kind, stomped out of the house, gone to the nearest tavern, gotten drunk, and crashed the car on his way home, killing himself and a family of four in the process — one of whom could have been a future President or Pope.

It can’t be healthy to ruminate too deeply about such endless possibilities over which we have no direct control; to do so is to invite madness and scruples, and we have no merit or culpability for things we don’t directly will and for consequences we shouldn’t rightly have foreseen.3 But the point is made that we can either will to “put forth goodness” to ripple out through space and time — or not. And the larger point is that simply considering the importance of our small acts and doing our best to keep our will oriented toward the Good, the True, and the Beautiful are crucial. We must always try to do the right thing at every moment.

On another level, even the smallest things we do for others are what we do for Christ Himself. In Matthew 25:31-40, He tells us this very clearly:

And when the Son of man shall come in His majesty, and all the angels with Him, then shall He sit upon the seat of His majesty. And all nations shall be gathered together before Him, and He shall separate them one from another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats:  And He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on His left.

Then shall the King say to them that shall be on His right hand: Come, ye blessed of My Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took Me in: Naked, and you covered Me: sick, and you visited Me: I was in prison, and you came to Me.

Then shall the just answer Him, saying: Lord, when did we see Thee hungry, and fed Thee; thirsty, and gave Thee drink? And when did we see Thee a stranger, and took Thee in? or naked, and covered Thee? Or when did we see Thee sick or in prison, and came to Thee?

And the king answering, shall say to them: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these My least brethren, you did it to Me.

The obverse to this, though, is that evil and failures to act also ripple out “into the universe” as well, and are also what we do to, or fail to do for, Christ. Verses 41-46 continue with Our Lord’s speech:

Then He shall say to them also that shall be on his left hand: Depart from Me, you cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave Me not to eat: I was thirsty, and you gave Me not to drink. I was a stranger, and you took Me not in: naked, and you covered Me not: sick and in prison, and you did not visit Me.

Then they also shall answer Him, saying: Lord, when did we see Thee hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister to Thee?

Then He shall answer them, saying: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it not to one of these least, neither did you do it to Me. And these shall go into everlasting punishment: but the just, into life everlasting.

When deciding on where and how to focus their energies, so many people have “saving the world” and “thinking globally” as goals — some to the point of ignoring those right in front of them. While our actions may have unforseen, profound effects, we shouldn’t necessarily be focused on grand gestures and vast undertakings — at least not — especially not — if our own lives are in disarray; we should be focused on the people and things immediately around us.

Practicing the virtue of piety requires seeing the world in concentric circles made of persons, with our greater duties owed toward those inhabiting the inner circles, and lesser duties owed to those at the outermost. Our first duty is to God, Who’s found in the innermost circle, at the center of it all. Then it is to our family in the second circle. Then to our friends in the third. Then to our immediate neighbors. Then to our towns, followed by our states and countries, and only then to “the world.” Before thinking globally, we should concentrate on the center — on God — first, and then on our families. If our relationships with them aren’t good due to some failure on our part, we’ve demonstrated that we lack the wisdom and virtue to move on to the circle that comes next.

In other words, if your own children are being neglected while you’re trying to save “the children of world,” you are a fool, ignoring your primal, particular duties. If you’re an oikophobe who betrays or mistreats your spouse while trying to “make the world safe” for this group of strangers or that, you are failing. If you’re trying to save a person or group at the expense of those closer to you, you are not doing the right thing.

Stop. And deal with those whom God has put right in front of you.

See Christ in them, and know that what you do — and fail to do — for them is what you do — and fail to do — for Him.

Know, too, that your doing your duty toward them, though an apparently small thing, will make that one part of the world a better place for everyone in it.

And know that, like a few decimal places, a trim tab, or a blacksmith’s nail, it may “change the world” in the end.