Ripples in a Really Big Pond
by Ruth Anne Mak
We have all heard of “paying it forward”, which refers to helping someone out to repay someone else who helped us in some way. I have always thought this is a wonderful idea and a way to spread acts of compassion and kindness, and it really helps the person who is helping someone as well. It would seem to be obvious how it helps the person who is receiving the act of kindness, but maybe not so obvious how it helps the person who is the helper. I have seen many arguments that it might not help the person who is the recipient of the more tangible acts of giving, either, but that has never rung true for me.
When I think back over my life so far I can think of many times when someone gave me the gift of anything from a smile or kind word when I needed it desperately, a hug, a bit of food when I was hungry, some sorely needed words of wisdom, to co-signing on a small loan for an old, loud car that took me from isolated and depressed to a mobile person who saw possibilities. Each of those acts, large or small, helped me heal and become who I am today. We don’t have to have a lot of money or influence to give someone a smile, open a door for someone, or to wish someone a good day, and we can give of our time and share our gifts and knowledge, too.
So why am I making a few smiles or a bit of your time sound as if they can change a life? Because they really can! Picture a world map in your head for a moment if you will. I promise not to ask you where any obscure countries are, but if you can just visualize where Japan and the United States are you can follow my explanation. Japan is approximately 5,000 miles from the west coast of the United States, and there is a huge ocean between the two countries. If you have trouble picturing how big the Pacific Ocean actually is between those two locations, just picture yourself in a boat stranded off the east coast of Japan. There is no land to be seen to your east, no people for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles, and no matter how hard you paddle you are still going to be off the east coast of Japan. But the amazing thing about the way our planet works is that we are all connected in one way or another, and if you happened to be on that little boat with enough fresh water and food but no engine to propel your boat in that vast ocean, you would most likely eventually end up, with time, a little luck, and reasonable weather, all the way across the expanse of open ocean somewhere on the West Coast of the United States. The currents would carry you all in that little boat all that way even if you didn’t propel yourself at all. That is one long trip, but it is not only possible, but probable and fairly predictable.
So now that we can imagine that a tiny boat can drift across an ocean without so much as a human presence, let’s shrink our ocean down to a lake so it will be easier to grasp the importance of our actions. If I sit in the center of the lake and swirl my finger in the water to create some small ripples of waves and someone watches those little ripples from above the lake, she would see them spread out to reach the shore eventually. They may not be big enough to knock over a boat, but they might change the direction of a seed that is floating on the pond. Instead of washing up on one shore and being eaten by an animal as most of those seeds would, the seed may end up washing ashore near a picnic table and growing into a tree that provides shade and food for wildlife for decades, and may even form the beginning of a whole stand of that tree species. So yes, those little ripples we made with our fingers might make a difference that we didn’t anticipate and of which we may never be aware. If we had swirled our fingers on the other side of the boat we might have sent ripples to the other shore, but our choice had results and consequences whatever we chose.
As we go through each day we either drift in a boat in the middle of an ocean feeling as if we can’t do anything but ride the current helplessly, or we swirl our fingers in the water and start paying attention to where the ripples we started go and where they come ashore. It gets complicated sometimes by the fact that we may not see the whole pond or where the ripples we set into motion go, which seeds they wash onto shore, and what happens after we go ashore, but the ripples spread whether we notice them or not.
So that brings me back to the choices we make during any given day of our lives. Going about the business of living our lives is no different than swirling our fingers in the lake or drifting in that boat in the ocean. Each time we speak or act we make a choice as to what ripples we set in motion, and if we forget how many people we can affect with a smile, nod, kind word, volunteer shift, job done well, nasty comment, glare, silence when words would help someone, every creation we make or each choice not to act at all, just imagine yourself getting out of bed in the morning, dressing, eating, heading off to work or school or whatever your day holds, your interactions with pets, children, co-workers, family, friends, strangers, the environment itself, the journey home, your leisure activities, passions, hobbies, social gatherings, trips you may take out of your comfort zone, and all the people you meet during special times of sadness or joy.
It can be a bit overwhelming to read that list if you never considered before how many people you have the potential to affect each day whether you leave your house or not, and if you can picture yourself in the midst of that day with all the people you pass on the street, in the grocery, or anywhere else you go, those you text, chat with in person, via email, or on the telephone, you can see why I think of each of us standing at the center of a whole pool of ripples. Mine wash over you as you read this, yours do over others every time you interact with someone or choose not to, and theirs do over you and everyone else since they are at the circle of their own pond of ripples. Perhaps if you weren’t overwhelmed with my first list you feel that way after thinking about all the people’s lives you can affect as the ripples spread around each person, perhaps change their day with a scowl or frown, pass by them to others and finally to wash up on some shore you may never even personally hear of or visit.
But my purpose isn’t to overwhelm you. I simply want to make the point that each of us has the power to make positive or negative change in this world, whatever our situation is. Each day when we wake up we make choices, and one of those is whether we want to leave the world a better place when we drift off to sleep that night or whether we are content to drift about sending ripples out in all directions aimlessly. Do you have passions? Maybe you have ideas that might make the world, or your town, a better place? Or perhaps you believe the world isn’t all bad, but feel so small in a huge world of all the bad things you hear about every day? Maybe you aren’t even sure what you believe at this point, but you don’t have to have huge goals and plans to make a difference.
If you want to make a difference in this world, just close your eyes a moment, picture yourself going through your day and see yourself sending out ripples. From the time you wake up until your day is over you send out ripples. Each smile you give, person you give a boost to with words, resources, or a bit of help you give, each plan you set into action, and each word you speak sends out ripples in all directions. Did you realize you had such power to help or hurt within you? Did you know you can change lives by simple kindness or compassion? That you can send ripples out that change people’s days and therefore change the days of all those in their lives, and so on outward in an ever-widening circle? We have all had help of one kind or another whether we admit it or not, and we all have the power to help others.
I used to volunteer with a rape crisis advocacy group, and I remember a young female college student (girl, really) who was having a horrible time because the person who had hurt her lived on campus near her classes. I gave her a small teddy bear of mine to hold when she felt unsafe so she could remember she wasn’t alone, and a year later when she left school she gave me a beautiful bear to thank me for helping her. What she said really struck me, though. She said that day I hugged her and handed her this tiny bear that was kind of worn and told her she wasn’t alone in this she had been ready to give totally up. She was so scared, lonely, and felt so bullied by the boy’s friends that she was done with struggling, but when I gave her that little bear with my words that she wasn’t alone and that we knew what she was going through, that she decided to keep fighting. I haven’t talked to her for many years, but I wonder sometimes if she was able to move on with her life and perhaps marry and even have children. I know she would be a wonderful mother, but she would have been wonderful at many things and I wish her a full life. I had no idea at the time she was quite that close to giving up, and I almost didn’t give her the bear since it was one I had held for years and was ragged. I took and chance that she would understand my heart with in the gesture, and I hate to think what might have happened if I hadn’t.
No, you won’t save a life or make someone decide it isn’t worth trying any more most days, but I sure remember many times when a stranger opened a door for me or wished me a good day, and I know it did make a difference to me. I know that I treated those around me better and felt that the world was a pretty good place after I received those gifts, and since I have come into contact with so many people over the years that I wouldn’t have without the kindnesses I can say that they made a big difference and sent out ripples from the givers to me and then to everyone who was helped along the way by things I might have done. It’s time to think about what kind of ripples each of us want to send out and consider what you want your legacy to be.
So next time you have your finger in the pond and decide to wiggle it around a bit by interacting with others, what will you begin? Will you send out ripples of compassion and make the world, or your corner of it, a better place to live in some way? Or will you drift along on the boat in that huge ocean and feel you might as well not bother to try to make a difference? You may not change a whole ocean with your ripples, but then again, you just might since you can’t see the whole picture from your little boat on the pond. It’s at least something to consider, and wouldn’t it be nice to be able to drift off to sleep at night knowing you set something positive in motion that day?