Ripple Effects

by Julie Chapman | May 23, 2016

The sun shone brightly against the vast blue sky. Fluffy white clouds hovered over the horizon while a slight breeze flowed in from the ocean, creating smells of salt and sand. Saltwater gently surged back and forth as the waves swelled and retreated. It was a perfect spring day at the beach.

Near Station 25 on Sullivan’s Island, people settled into the hard task of sunbathing.

Pockets of chairs were gathered beside children building sandcastles using pails and shovels. The joy of playing on the beach brought together people of all ages.

I walked in the shallow water towards the black and white lighthouse that stands on Sullivan’s Island shore. Its presence sends rhythmic streams of light to all who pay attention.

As the water washed over my feet, I moved in a forward direction, kicking up droplets of water that sprayed downward. Each miniature drop began an epicenter that created circular ripples. The small circles of ripples flowed side to side, depending on the direction of the waves, and consequently, didn’t linger in my path. Over and over, the water droplets soared in the air from the movement of my feet, into the water, with a splash. I thought of all the times, I interact with the people around me, creating unknowingly, waves of ripples that reach others in their paths.

I began to see my interactions as these tiny drops. In the past, my idea of ripple effects originated from one epicenter, such as a rock hitting the water’s surface with ripples radiating outward, crossing a stream or a lake. I realized now each of my interactions with others creates a ripple originating from the other’s center. Isn’t that true in the greater scheme of life? Our actions impact another’s life, and the ripples flow from their center. Often, we don’t see the true impact our presence has made as they flow in and out of our life.

For a moment, I stilled my feet and the tiny undulations ceased. The water continued to ebb and flow, side to side, but without my input. Life will continue without my involvement if I chose to remain still, not sharing my presence. If I move, my actions inadvertently affect others. It is my choice to act or not; further, when I act, am I helpful or hurtful? It is not always clear and it is crucial to be self-reflecting in determining what is helpful. Just because I do not witness a negative impact does not mean that there is not one. Because those ripples flow side-to-side rather than forwards in my path, I rarely see the full impact I have on another.

When I consider my actions, these observations seem overwhelming, knowing that my behavior creates ripple effects in others that stretch into multitude of tiny overlapping circular movements. I can cease interacting, afraid of impacting negatively or I can try to operate each moment from my deepest sense of right, accompanied with introspection. Inside each of us, there is a place that when we tap into, we find rightness in our actions. When we find ourselves justifying, we are acting outside of our deepest sense of right. We are justifying our behavior when we say “I did this because…” instead of  “it was just the right thing to do”. It does not matter what another does, ultimately, our actions stand-alone. When we are treated poorly, we get to choose whether to treat them as they treat us or rise above and respond to them with empathy and respect regardless. Kindness always creates ripple effects that can change lives. I have seen this happen over and over. 

Many years ago, when I was a waitress, I experienced rude people on a daily basis. I decided that I was going to be extra kind to them. In my twenty-year-old brain, I was going to get them back with too much kindness, a kind of gooey, over the top, fake kindness. They couldn’t complain to my manager that I was too nice so I felt safe in my strategy. What I saw was a complete attitude change. People were forced to alter their trajectory when they were treated kindly. I learned that I only had to fake the first part of kindness. It became easier with each interaction and by the time the customer left, a positive experience followed in the wake. The icing on the cake was a big tip!

As I stood in the water on Sullivan’s Island, I thought back to those sociology experiments and the power of kindness. I decided right then, that the droplets coming off my momentum would be positive, that the ripples in others’ lives would start from my own upbeat ripple. Even if I never know the extent of my impact, I will imagine the grand finale of fireworks, exploding outward, multitudes on top of each other, creating a brilliance of light and joy and knowing that I had played a significant part in the crescendo where each of us can be a crucial component. Will you join me in this celebration of kindness?