Ripples (Or How to Remember You’re Not an Island)

One of my talents is a gift of conversation. I didn’t always think of it as a gift, but now I know that being able to chain together seemingly unrelated topics is unique. It means that I rarely leave a table feeling like the flow of ideas is exhausted and that for me there is no such thing as an effective 30-minute meeting. Unless I’m not there. Or I’m sick.

Last night, I spent three and a half hours with a fellow conversationalist. Over that time, while food was prepared and consumed, we talked about all matter of things: public affairs, personal matters, this blog. The conversation didn’t stall once.

Toward the end of the night, when I was lamenting learning of another person who had been diagnosed with cancer, she refused to take the bait. She didn’t dive into ‘the world is going to hell in a handbasket’ thinking. No. She is fighting her own cancer battle and instead she said to me, “I’ve been thinking more and more about the concept of ripples. Just imagine, perhaps coming into contact with me or others with cancer may cause someone to become a doctor or find a cure. Ripples, Mel. Write a post about that.”

When I think about ripples, the idea is both empowering and scary. It means that the actions you take, although they feel small and insignificant, can have weight in the broader world. Little things, good or bad actions, can influence the world well beyond you. It also means that the law of unintended consequences can roar out of nowhere, and an action that you believed to be for good can harm someone.

Unfortunately, I realized long ago that I am not capable of understanding the reach of the ripples I cause. Like most people, I’m inclined to see my ripples as small, both in size and impact. Sure, I cast pretty heavy ripples at my kids, but beyond that? Hmmmm. Not so much. After all, my view is that of the rock tossed into the pond. All I see is my action: me flying through the air, me plunking into the pond, me sinking to the bottom. Me, me, me. But the ripples are happening outside me, above me and beyond me. Of course I can’t understand my ripples.

Then I thought maybe the trick would be to watch other people’s ripples. And maybe not just to watch them, but to reflect them. When was the last time I thanked someone for their influence or inspiration? When did I last notice the ripple and acknowledge its influence? I tried but I couldn’t think of a time recently. The problem is that ripples feel tiny by the time they get to us. It just feels like the world happening, life happening. If you can’t see the original rock, you can’t trace the ripples back to their origin.

So right now, this is all I have. I believe in ripples. I believe in their presence and their power. I try to live my life gently, positively so that any ripples I cast are likely to help, not harm.

And maybe that’s enough to start the next conversation.

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