At least once in our lives we justified a particular event by saying it was
impossible to avoid, perhaps defining it as something inevitable that we
didn’t see coming but that, one way or another, would have happened anyway.
“Fate” comes from the Latin word fatum (“that which is said”),
which indicates some irrevocable decision of a greater power that decides
things for us in ways that have no rhyme or reason.
Nowadays, what we simply call “fate” has earned a relatively figurative
name: the “butterfly effect.” This nomenclature comes from a scientific
theory that a small insect can, with a simple flap of its wings, trigger
conditions that could cause a hurricane thousands of miles away. In this
article, we will look further into how every event is connected to another,
causing certain outcomes. At this point, a dilemma suddenly arises: are we
able to predict certain outcomes of events? If every action we take has
consequences, can we still somehow determine what the result will be?
Philosophy and religion interpret “destiny” according to different
perspectives, without necessarily ruling one another out. It goes without
saying that the concept of destiny has also been the catalyst of much
artistic imagination of screenwriters and directors, authors and
Following the Second World War, film production began to pay more attention
to social problems and the human condition, giving more depth and realism
to the stories told and the characters involved. This was a result of this
time being one characterized by an artistic and social rebirth following
the war’s oppression of mankind. Then, in 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life by Frank Capra hit American cinemas, and it
would go on to become a cult classic, depicting a story that has withstood
the test of time.
Can you change the destiny of a man who is destined to fail?
George Bailey is the main character in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Played by the iconic James Stewart, George is a simple man with a strong
sense of selflessness and a spirit of sacrifice. Despite having dreams and
aspirations that would take him far away from the small town of Bedford
Falls, he founds a small company there and invests all his time in helping
his fellow townspeople. He meets Mary and marries her, and they go on to
have four children together.
Throughout the film, a series of unfortunate events happen to George Bailey
which only further upset his economic and emotional stability. He ends up
feeling not only dissatisfied with the precarious life he leads, but his
debts with the bank begin to pile up. At a certain point, he’s on the verge
of getting into trouble with the tax authorities. Eventually, he’s defeated
and mocked by his adversary, Mr. Henry Potter, leaving him feeling
powerless and convinced that he has let his life fall into an abyss and
he’s dragging his loved ones down with him.
This deep inner unrest leads George to consider a last resort “solution,”
as one last altruistic gesture that will solve his problems: he’ll end his
life, leaving his family enough life insurance to cover the expenses of the
bankruptcy, ensuring a stable future for his wife and children. When George
is on the brink of giving up, that’s when the townspeoples’ prayers on his
behalf are answered. They know how he’s been suffering, even after all he’s
ever done to be there for them. That’s the moment when a man jumps off the
bridge into freezing cold waters. George doesn’t think twice about saving
this stranger’s life. But the man, as it turns out, is actually an angel
named Clarence Oddbody.
The two spend time together as Clarence recovers from the cold waters, and
George begins to tell him that he wishes he’d never been born – that the
lives of those around him would have been better had he never lived. So,
the angel transports George with him through an alternate reality of
Bedford Falls that never had a George Bailey. All the good that George had
done during his existence is erased, and consequently, the destiny of every
person he ever met took a completely different, dark turn (including even a
How, then, can his life be considered a failure? George’s choices have
influenced the destiny of others, just as the choices of others have
influenced George’s destiny. When he goes back to the real world of Bedford
Falls, he discovers that the entire town has done its best to help him
financially, thus keeping his company from a financial collapse, allowing
him to start over, and ultimately keeping him out of jail and with his
Do the actions of one individual affect the fate of another?
As It’s a Wonderful Life suggests, George simply couldn’t believe
that his life would take a positive turn. He could never have predicted
such a bright future after all he’d been through; however, our lives are
unpredictable. That will always be a constant. Even in nature, we are
continuously going through things that are hard to comprehend, which are
studied and theorized about in order to give them some sense of meaning.
Edward Norton Lorenz, an American mathematician and meteorologist, was the
first, in 1963, to coin the mathematical and physical theory according to
which every single minimal action, even within a larger picture, inevitably
has long-term effects that influence the outcome… Hence, the metaphor of
The concept at the heart of the butterfly effect has influenced not only
scholars but also cinematographers, musicians, and writers. This theory
suggests that everything in life is random and follows no decided path.
, a 1998 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, is perhaps among the first to
simplify the theory, making it just as impactful and understandable
on-screen as It’s a Wonderful Life. The director, Peter Howitt,
created two parallel dimensions in which the characters’ lives went in two
different directions based on the choices they made.
It’s very similar to Frank Capra’s masterpiece. The protagonist Helen’s
life unfolds in two different ways, depending on whether or not she boards
the subway. The differences between the two lives trigger unforeseen
dynamics completely opposite from one another.
How many crossroads, perhaps unknowingly, do we come to every day?
Just as portrayed in Sliding Doors, we might ask ourselves when
we, too, might have come to a crossroads in life. It makes us wonder if –
and how much – our destiny is influenced not only by our own actions, but
also by others’. A fortuitous encounter is the consequence of other
(2009) depicts how a Brazilian man’s decision to make a hard-boiled egg
ends up creating a change in temperature which triggers rainfall on the
other side of the world two months later, changing the course of events for
the film’s protagonist.
“A single snowflake can bend the leaf of the bamboo.”
The film written and directed by Jaco Van Dormael, Mr. Nobody
features the brilliant Jared Leto – among others. This film tells the story
of a man who is somehow aware of the many fates he could have chosen for
In the film, set in the year 2092, children know the entire course of their
existence before they are even born, only to have their memories erased
when they come into the world. The main character, Nemo, somehow doesn’t
undergo this treatment, so he’s left with the knowledge of how the rest of
his life will unfold. He can arbitrarily make one choice instead of
another, since he knows the consequences of every single action before he
makes the slightest move.
The many destinies that Nemo experiences – or rather tells, since he has
seen them but not yet experienced them – will not, however, be chosen by
him. He decides not to choose… which, in a way, denies all the possible
alternatives and leaves room for a new, unforeseeable fate.
Constantly questioning ourselves about the motivation and the nature of our
destiny can create an underlying conflict causing us to not fully enjoy the
present. Nemo has come to know every version of himself, which ultimately
makes him prefer being nobody in particular, since he thinks it’s the only
way he can fully experience life.
All these films, in some way, allow us to better understand the concept of
the “butterfly effect” and its consequences. George and Helen are the
protagonists of two films that highlight, in the clearest possible way, the
butterfly effect in everyday life. The former displays the butterfly effect
through a chain of events that cause him to lose his stability, only to be
rewarded by this phenomenon, which ultimately gives him exactly what he
gave in his life. The latter shows the butterfly effect through double
vision with seemingly no consequence but brings about the beginning of two
completely different lives.
The lesson we can learn from Nemo’s experience, however, is that the
unpredictability of life is not an obstacle – rather, a necessary course.
The genuine feelings that are triggered by unexpected actions and events
resonate differently, allowing us to grow, mature, and progress as human
It is vital we do not live in fear of making decisions. Fear of
consequences is permissible in so much as it brings us to judge and
discern, but it must not become an anchor which holds us down in the same
place, never allowing us to set sail.
Edgar Lee Masters
“To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire–
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.”