Monday, March 19, 2012
The Ripple Effect
I'm currently reading Stephen King's latest book, 11/22/63. I'm more than halfway through. It's a good read. The basic plot is about a man who has gone back in time with the intent of preventing John F. Kennedy from being assassinated. I'm quite well-read when it comes to the Kennedy assassination, stories about time-travel have always been interesting to me, and I like Stephen King's writing style, so this novel seemed right up my alley.
I don't know where the story will eventually go, but something that has really intrigued me as I've been reading isn't so much the big goal, which is stop President Kennedy's assassination, but how the little things the main character is doing must have some sort of effect on future events in the lives of those he interacts with.
Think about it: this man comes into a timeline he was never a part of in its original incarnation; so no matter what he does, it will have some effect, whether big or small, on the lives of anyone he interacts with and possibly on the lives of those they interact with. I find that fascinating.
There is a quote from one of my favorite movies, It's A Wonderful Life
that says, "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" If you're not familiar with It's A Wonderful Life, it's a very good movie about the effect on man can have on the lives of others. George Bailey, thinking himself a failure, contemplates suicide, but is given a chance to see what the world would have been like had he never existed. He sees that even the smallest things he did had a great effect on the lives of those he touched. For example, by saving his brother's life as a child, he inadvertently saved the lives of many men during the war because those men were saved by his brother.
As I'm reading this book, it intrigues me how the people whose lives this man touches are altered, perhaps in significant ways. Regardless of how big or small the effects are, he is having some effect that didn't exist in the original timeline.
It reminds me of a previous post I wrote recently. We never really know the effect we have on others. Perhaps a person feels like their life is a waste, but they never fully understand the effect they have on those around them. Even by killing oneself, that event will have an effect on others.
I remember a friend of mine killed himself several years ago, and at his funeral I got the distinct impression that my friend was not only truly surprised by how many people loved him and were affected by him, but that he was sorry he hadn't realized that. Now whether that impression was of my own making or whether my friend's spirit really felt that way, I will never know in this lifetime. But it always made me think: we just don't know how we're impacting others' lives.
Think of that power. Every choice we make, big or small, is going to have some kind of ripple effect and affect others somehow. It reminds me of the Gwyneth Paltrow movie, Sliding Doors,
which shows two parallel timeline of a woman: one where she catches her train and one where she misses it, and how that tiny event has a major impact on the direction of the two timelines. It's fascinating to think about. Missing the train or catching it occurs simply because a child gets (or doesn't get) in her way in just a matter of second, and yet it creates a ripple effect that completely alters her trajectory. In one timeline, because she catches the train, she gets home early and catches her boyfriend cheating on her; in the other, she doesn't. All this because a little girl playing with a doll got in her way (or didn't get in her way), and yet that child will never have any notion that her actions had that effect on the woman played by Gwyneth Paltrow.
No man is a an island. The things we do (or don't do) have an effect on everyone and everything around us, and we may never ever know it. Sometimes we're just so busy living our lives and doing our thing, we never really take into account the effect our actions have on others. Oh, sure, we can see the big ones. Somebody takes another's life, for example. We can see the effect that had on the dead person's life. But it's the small, seemingly insignificant things that interest me most.
Think about a teacher, for example, that had a great (or negative) effect on you. Jonah had one teacher who treated him terribly and really negatively affected his self-esteem for a time. Does she even realize that? I had a teacher once that served as a father-figure to me when my own father was having some serious health problems. Did he ever realize that until I told him years later. Think of the words you say, good or bad, and how they might affect someone.
I remember watching a training video about productivity, and it was teaching that how you treat people has a ripple effect. It reminds me of this popular story that I've seen forwarded in emails countless times. Maybe it's a little schmaltzy, but I think the moral is apropos:
One day, when I was a freshman in high school, I saw a kid from my class was walking home from school. His name was Kyle. It looked like he was carrying all of his books.
I thought to myself, "Why would anyone bring home all his books on a Friday? He must really be a nerd."
I had quite a weekend planned (parties and a football game with my friends tomorrow afternoon), so I shrugged my shoulders and went on. As I was walking, I saw a bunch of kids running toward him. They ran at him, knocking all his books out of his arms and tripping him so he landed in the dirt. His glasses went flying, and I saw them land in the grass about ten feet from him. He looked up and I saw this terrible sadness in his eyes.
My heart went out to him. So, I jogged over to him as he crawled around looking for his glasses, and I saw a tear in his eye. As I handed him his glasses, I said, "Those guys are jerks. They really should get lives."
He looked at me and said, "Hey thanks!"
There was a big smile on his face. It was one of those smiles that showed real gratitude. I helped him pick up his books, and asked him where he lived. As it turned out, he lived near me, so I asked him why I had never seen him before. He said he had gone to private school before now. I would have never hung out with a private school kid before.
We talked all the way home, and I carried some of his books. He turned out to be a pretty cool kid. I asked him if he wanted to play a little football with my friends. He said yes. We hung out all weekend and the more I got to know Kyle, the more I liked him, and my friends thought the same of him.
Monday morning came, and there was Kyle with the huge stack of books again. I stopped him and said, "Boy, you are gonna really build some serious muscles with this pile of books everyday!"
He just laughed and handed me half the books.
Over the next four years, Kyle and I became best friends. When we were seniors we began to think about college. Kyle decided on Georgetown and I was going to Duke. I knew that we would always be friends, that the miles would never be a problem.
He was going to be a doctor and I was going for business on a football scholarship.
Kyle was valedictorian of our class. I teased him all the time about being a nerd.
He had to prepare a speech for graduation. I was so glad it wasn't me having to get up there and speak.
Graduation day, I saw Kyle. He looked great. He was one of those guys that really found himself during high school. He filled out and actually looked good in glasses. He had more dates than I had and all the girls loved him. Boy, sometimes I was jealous! Today was one of those days.
I could see that he was nervous about his speech. So, I smacked him on the back and said, "Hey, big guy, you'll be great!" He looked at me with one of those looks (the really grateful one) and smiled. "Thanks," he said.
As he started his speech, he cleared his throat, and began, "Graduation is a time to thank those who helped you make it through those tough years. Your parents, your teachers, your siblings, maybe a coach...but mostly your friends... I am here to tell all of you that being a friend to someone is the best gift you can give them.
I am going to tell you a story."
I just looked at my friend with disbelief as he told the story of the first day we met. He had planned to kill himself over the weekend. He talked of how he had cleaned out his locker so his Mom wouldn't have to do it later and was carrying his stuff home. He looked hard at me and gave me a little smile.
"Thankfully, I was saved. My friend saved me from doing the unspeakable."
I heard the gasp go through the crowd as this handsome, popular boy told us all about his weakest moment. I saw his Mom and dad looking at me and smiling that same grateful smile. Not until that moment did I realize it's depth.
Never underestimate the power of your actions. With one small gesture you can change a person's life. For better or for worse."
Yeah, it's an overdone story. Yeah, it's probably lost its impact from being passed around the Internet so much. But there is truth in it: we don't know how our actions and words truly affect others.
I am also reminded of a talk given by a popular LDS youth speaker in the 70s named Brent Yorgason.
I wish I could find a transcript of it online because it's both humorous and poignant. I have it on tape (yes, tape, you youngsters); maybe I'll transcribe it some time.
In any case, the gist of the talk was the effect, either positive or negative, that we have on others; how our words and actions can either life others or bring them down. Although this is not the exact talk, many of its ideas and stories can be found here.
It seems such a small thing, but our choices -how we choose to act; what we choose to say; how we choose to treat our fellow man - give us perhaps the greatest power we have. It's incredible to think about.