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The Butterfly Effect

The Butterfly Effect

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Life is Like a Rollercoaster


The butterfly effect is a metaphor for the concept that small, seemingly insignificant events—like the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings—can produce tremendous and unanticipated consequences. In this blog, Zainab Salbi, the founder of the humanitarian group Women for Women International, explores the often untapped and under-appreciated capacity of women around the world to cause major and lasting change for good.


Read Zainab's previous blog post here.

You would think that growing up in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war and eventually spending much of my professional life in war zones (I work with women survivors of war) would make me immune from the sadness brought about loss and death.  But life does not work this way and, in many ways, I am glad it doesn’t. For I would worry about myself the day I stop crying when I hear the story of a woman who has been raped, or a child who has seen her father killed in front of her, or the death of a friend and a loved one, as I recently had with my friend Marla. 

Marla was one of the passengers in the Ethiopian Airlines plane who crashed shortly after taking off from Lebanon in January of this year.  The news was particularly shocking as I spent my Christmas with Marla and her husband, who happens to be the French Ambassador in Lebanon. When I first heard the news, I was speechless, in shock, not knowing what to do or say.  I then started crying.  Then, I remembered my mother and the wisdom she shared before her death exactly 10 years ago when she was only 52 years old. She was young, yes! And she had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a horrible illness that paralyzes the body while keeping the brain intact.  But despite all of that, my mother handled the process of her death with so much grace as she reflected over her life and shared some of the lessons she learned. As I reflect about that time where I was caring for my mother as I watched her dying, I came to understand that my mother gave me her best gift with the wisdom she shared as she prepared her death. 

“Now that I am dying, I regret all the time I wasted in my life being upset at so many things and crying over them.  As I reflect on them today, two thirds of the things that upset me were not worth it.” This was one of the things my mama told me.  So now, every time I am upset at something, I think to myself: “Is this really worth it?”  “Will I still be upset on this issue if I was in my death bed?” The answer, as you can imagine, is NO for most of the times.  Now that doesn’t mean I am no longer upset, it just means that this question helps me put things in perspective really quickly and I won’t waste too much energy on it. 

My mama also wrote letters to every person in her life just before her death.  For those who needed an apology, she apologized and for those who needed her forgiveness, she forgave and there were those who simply got a letter from her saying I love you.  I used to mail these letters and, as sometimes she allowed me to glance at them, I vowed then that I won’t wait until I am on my death-bed to communicate all my feelings to those around me.  I must try to be on a clear page every day of my life.  So now, I wake up every morning and say it’s a good day to fly and it’s a good day to die, as my teacher Angeles Arrien taught me.  You see, life is so beautiful and I want to make sure to live it fully, so it is a good day to fly.  But in case this day will be my last day, I want to make sure that I am leaving with a clean page in regards to everyone in my life.  Sometimes it is impossible to do that on a daily basis, but try to do it on a weekly, monthly and sometimes annual basis, and it still works. 

My mama also told me that life is like a rollercoaster, sometimes you are up and sometimes you are down. Both are part of the experience, so just try to enjoy the whole ride.  She was adamant about this point.  She wanted to make sure that I have fun in my life and that, after her death, I would go for a vacation and rest instead of spending it mourning her and being imprisoned with the sadness of loosing her.  And while it is impossible not to mourn the loss of my mother and not to miss her so very much even 10 years after she left, I did take her words seriously and I remember them all the time as I dance, as I laugh, and even as I cry. 

When I visited my mother’s grave for the first time in 7 years during my visit to Iraq in July, I was feeling sad and melancholy.  I just wanted to put my forehead on her tombstone and tell her how much I missed her and cry.  And when I was finally able to do that, after paying tips to the graveyard care givers who roamed around when they learned I was visiting my mother’s grave and convinced them to leave me alone, I did put my head on her tombstone and just as I was starting to get my tears together, I heard my mother’s voice saying: “Do you think I am in this pathetic place? I am not honey.  I am OK! You just need to take care of your self and live your life fully. Go and have fun my dear.”  I know it is crazy to write about hearing my dead mother’s voice.  But if you had lost a close loved one, you would know what I am talking about.  I started laughing, as these were so my mother’s words.  I even felt embarrassed that I was laughing instead of crying as I was visiting her graveyard.  But knowing her, and knowing that I grew up with her telling me that the best prayers are for you to laugh everyday and with your laughter you thank God and that is all what you need to do to be a good Muslim, I did laugh and I did remember what I needed to remember, which is to enjoy my life and live it fully, for you just don’t know when it will end.

As I think of my friend Marla and her sudden death, I think to myself: Was Marla happy? Did she live a full life? Did she live her dreams and aspirations? And I as I think of it, I think she did.  I was dancing with Marla on Christmas Eve, for she always loved to dance.  The sound of her laughter still echoes in my ears and I always remember her laughing and smiling.  She was with the love of her life. You knew that by just seeing the way they looked at each other.  She was a yoga teacher, a translator, a mother and, more than that, she was a full woman. 

We will all go one day.  The question is: are you living your life fully? And as my teacher Angeles Arrien would say:  When was the last time you danced? When was the last time you sang? When was the last time you heard music? Don’t wait too long to live life. Do it today, for you never know when the plane will crash.
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