The Butterfly Effect
(or the Effect of Butterflies)

By Roger Bretherton

The mystery and wonder of life guide us towards an open and relational view of psychology and theology.

I’m not in clinical practice anymore. I used to work in the British National Health Service as a Clinical Psychologist, but fifteen years ago I moved into academia. And now, every year, I guide undergraduates through the maze of theories and formulations commonly known as ‘abnormal’ psychology. Each year I neatly set out the numerous approaches: the medical, the social, the behavioral, the dynamic… and knock them down like dominoes. All of them, it turns out, are imperfect, and all of them are partial, but as long as we keep that in mind, it seems that all of them are useful.

Over the years I found that the pressing questions that slowly steered me towards an increasingly open and relational theology were the same ones that changed my understanding of psychology. The old sureties that underpinned the therapy and spirituality of young adult life collapsed simultaneously. Initially I thought that a higher-education setting was a sure route to certainty, but the more I lectured, the more difficult I found it to believe that any one perspective in psychology was the final word. It seems to me that any theory of mental illness that lacks curiosity and closes itself to revision gives off a pungent whiff of fundamentalism; it becomes a bully in the playground of ideas.

Maybe I’m still hung over from my ten-year binge in clinical practice. I have too many doubts. I’m still shaken by the number of beautiful theories that shattered when applied to my clients in the real world. After a decade of being exposed to the unimaginable suffering of clients with trauma, maybe the radical openness of theology leaked into my psychology. One of the main tenets of open and relational theology is that the future is open, unspecified, and yet to be determined. No psychological model can ever sum up the complexity of human existence in a way that dictates inevitable therapeutic progress. The most appropriate attitude I could adopt to my clients seemed to be a loving attentiveness, with no attempt to control the outcome on the basis of a prespecified model. It was my experience of the clients themselves that pushed me in an ever more open and relational direction.

Mary was one such client. She didn’t have cancer, but she feared she did. Over the past year, she’d exhausted every test and scan the National Health Service (NHS) could justifiably offer, and she emerged with a unanimous clean bill of health. But this wasn’t enough. When one scan was completed, she wanted another… because any reassurance given was short-lived. There was always the chance they’d missed something, always the possibility an aggressive tumor had sprung to life in the days after her last test. She wanted to be certain—absolutely sure—that she would be healthy for the foreseeable future, so she chased down the final stubborn possibility of cancer until it was zero. Almost.

It was the almost that bothered her.

Twice, sometimes three times a week, she appeared at the local clinic with yet another bodily omen of impending death. Her leg ached. Her eyes hurt. There was blood in her stools. She couldn’t catch her breath. Her fingers tingled. Her shoulders were stiff. Each time, her family doctor did his best to reassure her that, as far as he could tell, she didn’t have cancer. Each time, she’d retreat from the office pacified, only to return a few days later with a further complaint. She was driving her doctor, a man renowned locally for his gentle bedside manner, steadily ‘round the bend.’

So, with some reluctance on her part, he referred her to me. From her perspective, being referred to a clinical psychologist was a mistake—an unwelcome distraction, even—from the serious business of finding a life-saving medical intervention. Mercifully, however, she indulged me for a few sessions.

She’d been scared of dying since childhood, so our work together ranged across a broad spectrum of concerns: from the cognitive-behavioral understanding of health anxiety to the existential meaning of death. One week we weighed up the pros and cons of anxiety medication, the next we discussed the work of Viktor Frankl. And then, in the final session, we talked about butterflies.

Butterflies were visiting her kitchen, far out in the local farmlands, more often than usual that summer. One after another, they fluttered in through the open door and circled the scullery. She was captivated by them, and so was her young son. They joked together that they were angels sent to comfort her, to let her know that all would be well; someone somewhere knew she existed.

My office was on the first floor, looking out on an ancient weather-beaten wall, strewn with ivy. It was only when she mentioned the butterflies that a glimmer outside caught my eye. And there, as I looked out of the window, were dozens of brightly colored butterflies resting on the ivy, gently opening and closing their wings in the sunshine. In the ten years I’d occupied that office, I’d never seen a single flutter, let alone a flurry like that. I jerked upright in my chair and gestured to Mary, and we stared out of the window like a pair of wide-eyed toddlers gazing into a rock pool.

After that, any further conversation seemed superfluous. We said our good-byes and finished the session. Over the course of the afternoon, the butterflies slowly vacated the ivy outside, and by the next day they were gone. They’d never visited before, and they never came again. It was almost as if they’d been waiting in the wings to put on a show.

Why did they come at that moment? Was it just coincidence, a delicate plague of crimson and black confined to the thirty mile tract of land between her home and my office? Or were they angels dispatched to reassure her that her pain mattered and was known? Or was it some strange quantum phenomenon, whereby our consciousness called them into being?

I don’t know. It seems too bland to call it coincidence; too grand to call it synchronicity; too lazy to call it a butterfly effect. Perhaps serendipity best sums it up. It certainly made me wonder if the world was much more open and interrelated than I had previously allowed.

This year, during my annual round of mental health lectures, there will inevitably be an eager undergraduate student who, in reviewing the models I presented, will ask which of them I endorse.

I’ll struggle to answer.

Of course I have my favorites. I tend to prefer the psychological theories that view ‘madness’ as an extreme version of everyday experiences, but ultimately, I have as much certainty regarding my knowledge of insanity as I do the reasons butterflies alight on ivy.

I won’t say that, of course. I’ll probably mumble some high-sounding excuse for an answer. After all, it didn’t take me long to learn that pretending to know the answers is part of the lecturer’s job description.

Or maybe this year things will be different. Perhaps I’ll find the courage to share my uncertainty. Maybe I will be open and allow the student to impact me, as I once allowed my clients. And who knows, maybe this year, my teaching will sail a little bit closer to sanity.

Roger Bretherton is a Clinical Psychologist and Associate Professor at the University of Lincoln (UK). He studies Character Strengths and is the writer and presenter of The Character Course (

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love