Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Ripple Effect

Have you ever stood at the edge of a placid lake? It was so large, so still, it seemed like a huge mirror, reflecting the image of the sky. But you chose to disturb the serenity of that scene by picking up a pebble and tossing it into the water. It was just a tiny pebble, not of much importance when compared with the whole lake and, strictly speaking, it sank immediately to the bottom. It wasn’t a very exciting end for the pebble. But the lake, the whole huge lake, was affected. The pebble created only a small ripple, but the ripple moved outward getting ever larger as it went. It affected everything in its path long after the pebble that caused it was lying inert at the bottom of the lake. We are all like that…pebbles in a huge universe. We don’t matter much in the grand scheme of things, but each little thing we do or say creates ripples that affect everyone they touch.

One afternoon, I took my son to the local grocery store. There was nothing much in the refrigerator, and I filled my cart with some fresh veggies, lean chicken and steak, dried cranberries, instant oatmeal, low-fat frozen dinners and a week’s supply of the low-fat, low-carb yogurt that I lived on when rushed. And I bought some fresh cookies from the bakery that Chris had been eyeing hungrily. We made our way to the only working check-out line and stood behind a woman with two full carts and three unruly children.

I found myself becoming irritated, until I looked behind me. A man in dirty work clothes stood there. He had two or three things in his arms, including a 12-pack of beer, and he looked every bit as agitated and tired as I was feeling. When the woman in front of me paid for her load, I put the separator bar in front of my things and turned to the man.

"Would you like to go first? You only have a few things, and I have plenty of time."

He looked at me as though I had two heads.

"Are you sure, lady?"

"Yes, please, go ahead."

His entire demeanor changed. He became more relaxed, and his air of irritation disappeared. He checked his few things through, paid for them, then turned to me and said, "That was the nicest thing anyone has done for me in months. Thank you."

I watched the man walk out the door.

“Why did you let that man go first?” Chris asked. “We were here longer than he was.”

“He seemed pretty upset,” I replied. “It occurred to me that he might go home, drink that 12-pack and get drunk enough to beat his wife or his kids. But now, maybe he’ll be in a better mood when he gets there. Maybe he’ll turn around and do something nice for someone else. That’s how it works. It’s called the ripple effect. Everything you do has consequences for those around you. Whenever possible, you want those consequences to be positive. We had to wait an extra 3 minutes to check out. But if that is all it takes to help that man control his temper, maybe keep his wife and kids out of a hospital somewhere, don’t you think it was worth the 3 minutes?”

“You don’t know that’s what will happen,” he said.

“No, I don’t. But you saw that man standing behind us…he looked pretty angry, didn’t he?”


“And how did he look when he left?”

Chris didn’t respond.

“I rest my case,” I said.

Over the years, both my kids would get upset with me as I let people cut into checkout lines and I would tell them about the ripple effect. I can only hope they learned the lesson well.