The Rippling Effect

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Several years ago, a graduating medical school class invited me to be a guest at their graduation dinner.  A resident with whom I’d worked previously had also been invited and was scheduled to speak.  When the time came for her to make her remarks, she began by telling a story of a former mentor of hers who, she said, had once told her, “Someone is always watching you.” She joked how at first she’d found that statement “a bit random” but then tied it neatly to the theme of her talk:  we are all role models for one another and how we behave moment by moment sometimes powerfully influences the behavior of other people around us, especially other people who actively look to us for knowledge.  “So as you go forward with your training,” she told them (I’m paraphrasing here), “remember to also look back at how you’re leading the people behind you.”

This story came to mind recently after a long-time reader of this blog, Julia, wrote in a comment about a previous post, Overcoming The Fear Of Death, “I’m interested in the idea of how the dead linger on and make ripples in the world. Nice thought but I don’t fully comprehend it.”  It’s such a powerful idea that I thought rather than simply replying to her comment, I’d spend some time here on it.

I borrowed the idea from Irvin Yalom, who wrote about borrowing it himself in his excellent book Staring at the Sun. He calls it the rippling effect and writes that it “refers to the fact that each of us creates—often without our conscious intent or knowledge—concentric circles of influence that may affect others for years, even generations.  That is, the effect we have on other people is in turn passed on to others, much as the ripples in a pond go on and on until they’re no longer visible but continuing at a nano level.”  He goes on to suggest that “the idea that we can leave something of ourselves beyond our knowing offers a potent answer to those who claim that meaninglessness inevitably flows from one’s finiteness and transiency.”  He then draws and important contrast between the hope to preserve our personal identity after we’re gone (a futile attempt doomed to failure for all but a few) and “leaving behind something from [our] life experience.”  He provides examples of patients whose death anxiety was dramatically ameliorated when proof of this principle was brought home to them through various experiences they had in which their influence had rippled out to others.


We all carry with us a concrete yet paradoxically ineffable sense of self, a feeling of a coherent identity that we define as “us”—a core self that resides somewhere within our skulls amidst a chorus of peripheral selves all locked within the same small space.  It remains this core sense of self to which we all seem desperately attached and in great fear of having annihilated by death.  It is, unfortunately, this very thing we’re all destined to lose, our certain knowledge of which serves as the source of our death anxiety (as well arguably the driving force behind most faith in religion and any other systems that posit the notion of life after death).

But there’s something of great value to be gained in our asking ourselves a simple question:  what else besides this internal sense of self might we conceive as being uniquely “us”? For example, might all the wisdom we accumulate over time that displays itself in our behavior not also represent our “selves”—in some sense, even more accurately than our subjective sense of self?  Are we not, after all, most clearly defined in the minds of others by what we do?  Doesn’t our behavior most accurately reflect our most deeply held beliefs, beliefs that make us far more unrepeatable than our own subjective sense that we’re unique?


The answer, of course, is that people within it change.  Why is democracy suddenly beginning to sprout in the Middle East?  The overly simplistic answer is because enough people are standing up to achieve it.  But why is that happening?  Partly because something one frustrated fruit vendor did unleashed an angry enough desire for freedom in his fellow countrymen.  Even when we don’t realize it, someone is always watching us.

Our behavior toward others doesn’t just make others the objects of our various intentions; it makes them vessels of lessons we teach them, whether we or even they know it.  Why has society advanced morally over the millennia?  (Yes, of course, barbarism still exists on a global scale, but there’s no arguing that many societies have become demonstrably more humane.)  Because the moral progress of individuals has gradually rippled across people and generations.

Unfortunately, we have a long way to go before we can say we’ve achieved a truly just and humane society anywhere on planet Earth.  But fortunately, we also each, therefore, have ample opportunity to leave meaningful parts of ourselves behind that can continue to exert positive effects.  None of us should think that by focusing on raising our children well or being kind to those immediately around us that we’re only affecting our children or those immediately around us.

The problem is that our influence is so difficult to measure.  Only rarely do we get feedback from others about how meaningfully we’ve influenced their lives for the better.  And even less often how they then may have gone on, as a direct result of our influence, to influence the lives of others.  But there’s little doubt this effect is real.

Not only that, the small kind word you leave with a stranger who you’ll never see again may not just spread out like ripples on a pond but may strike with the force of a tidal wave.  We just never know.  Sometimes the message our behavior imparts goes out to someone particularly receptive at that moment to being influenced by it.  But even if the messages our behaviors send reach ears at the volume of a whisper, our influence never ends with only the person in front of us.  Through the conduit they and others behind them with whom they interact represent, we all have the potential to contribute to shaping the future of our world.  As a Buddhist leader once said to me, “The fight for world peace goes on with or without you.  The question is, what kind of contribution do you want to make to it?”

That’s what my former resident was trying to tell that graduating medical school class.  And as she finished and stepped down from the podium, her husband, who’d been sitting next to me, leaned over and said, “That mentor who told her someone is always watching?  That was you.”

Next WeekHow To Comfort Yourself

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  • Lovely and compelling article—I have passed it on to my children. One thought, while not impacting the essence of your essay, isn’t this point (below) debatable?

    “It remains this core sense of self to which we all seem desperately attached and in great fear of having annihilated by death. It is, unfortunately, this very thing we’re all destined to lose…”

    Perhaps I misunderstood, but there are those who argue that the “core sense of self” is the essence of ourselves that does indeed survive death. Likely the so-called ego does not survive (the part that interacts with the material world), but our core sense of self or “feeling tone,” as it has been described, certainly may.

    Ricki: Undoubtedly there are many who would argue the core sense of self continues. But in the absence of compelling evidence, I’m afraid I’m not yet one of them.


  • Wow, compelling piece. Hopefully it will pop back into my mind when I am not not being my best, kindest self.

    What an incredible message to give someone as they are dying, when they are scared and in need of something to give them perspective and comfort.

    Thank you! I too will share this with my children. My son Is graduating from high school and is class president; this concept would be an excellent message to send to teens as they continue on with their lives.

  • The question of, what kind of contribution do you want to make to help people?

    As I practice SGI/Nichren Buddhism the impact I shared with people during dialogue sometimes brings tremendous goodness to them. When people are hopeless and lost, I shared this philosophy by giving them hope and courage to go on in life with my experiences that I have gone through in life.

    Sometimes people that I have talked to is so thankful to me for sharing but at times some are not. At least I have given them some hope, courage and compassion to fight on in life. The most important is sharing what you have learned and experience. The other party follows or not is beside the point.

  • Alex,
    Thank you for a sensitive but powerful reminder that a life lived consciously, mindfully, with love, kindness and compassion towards all does indeed ripple outwards. I am sending this to many friends.

  • Alex,

    I too found your article very insightful and motivating. And I appreciate the link to the story of Mohamed Bouazizi which I had not read.

    I fully agree with this notion that someone is always watching (and especially our children), and that our actions have an effect no matter what. We cannot predict what those effects will be, and to me that is really a beautiful aspect of the universe. It shows that every life really will have meaning and impact. We are all inextricably part of the flux, not islands unto ourselves.

    I think this is the reason why I continue to be moved by the “pay it forward” concept (and also liked the movie ;-). In essence, that is how life works. It’s the Karma concept, but without the direct feedback loop; rather I like the notion as the linkage of cause and effect. We consider our actions not because of how that will shape our karma, but rather, the karmic ripples of the universe and the affect that may have on the world and on future generations.

    Our actions *will* affect others and ripple outward. And we can tap into that power by carefully choosing what “stones” we throw into the pond. And now with the (really very recent) spread of the Internet, we have the ability to spread these ripples out globally. It’s an awesome force, and you can see why authoritarian countries are concerned by it.

    Thanks again, Alex, for the great article.

  • Alex,

    I’ve been following your weekly writings on HITW for about a year, and nearly every one has touched me in some way and has been very relevant to something I was experiencing or needed to hear at the time. Although I’ve never commented or written to you, I look forward to what I will be fortunate enough to learn from you next.

    I’ve taken to heart many lessons that I’m learning to incorporate in my own life and have passed many of your writings along to others.

    I genuinely feel I’ve gained some real guidance, insight, and inspiration during a very emotionally difficult and confusing time in my life. I think I will write a more detailed note to you personally to further explain the trials I’ve experienced and how I’ve managed to not only survive, but grow…and I’m sincerely grateful to you for being one of the people/places I was able to find real, honest, and meaningful guidance that I could take and use in my life to better myself and help me learn to use my best gifts to not only heal—but to find and share Happiness in My World.

    My original intent in writing this was simply to tell you that you have Indeed caused a “Ripple Effect” in my life… and I’m certain in many, many other’s as well.

    For that I thank you.

    Very Sincerely,

    Shauna 🙂

    Shauna: It’s comments like yours that keep me writing this blog. Thank you.


  • Alex, had to surface from lurkerdom as this piece really resonated for me. It’s both inspiring and cautionary. I add the “cautionary” characterization because it seems to me that we produce rippling effects for good or ill and, as such, it behooves us to avoid producing negative ripples while we strive to produce positive ones. And I suppose the frequency modulation of the ripples relates to the energy we put into our efforts. But I think I’ll just strive to be mindful of being watched and focus on producing “good ripples” and perhaps that will take care of the rest. Thanks for a great post.

    Glenn: Glad you enjoyed it.


  • Well we finally really agree on a good point. I have had this idea for sometime and I hope it is true as sometimes I am not so sure I am doing anything brilliant in the here and now.


  • For me at least, this may well have been your best post to date. I am not one that believes in any form of life after death, nor do I particularly fear death (other than the possibility of dying a slow painful death due to cancer or such), but it is a comforting thought to think our actions can indeed be felt long after we are gone. If one puts in the effort and energy it takes to tread lightly through our lives, the idea that it can truly make a difference is very exciting and rewarding.

    Thank you for all the effort you put into these posts. They definitely add to the ripples in a purely positive manner.

    Taryn: Glad it resonated.


  • Like David R., “I am not so sure I am doing anything brilliant . . . ” that would cause ripples. I am quite sure I am not being watched. I feel as if I am a grain of sand on the beach, not at all distinct or remarkable.

    I just ended a long career in which I was a cog/widget, an interchangeable part with many others. I could easily be replaced (and was easily replaced).

    I interpreted your post this week to indicate the leadership quality. Those who are leaders are watched and remembered and quoted and appreciated.

    The rest of us are grains of sand on the beach, I think. Unable to be distinguished, one from the other.

    I kinda like my life as a grain of sand. I can live in the moment. I am unselfconscious. I don’t want to be seen. I like my private life. I am not out to prove anything. I have my goals but they are “soft” goals now.

    I am not driven. I am only passionate about my children and grandchildren, really . . .

    So, does the exception prove the rule, Alex?

    Chris, MSN, RN

    Chris: Nope. With all due respect, I think you missed my point. You are being watched, if by no one else, your children and grandchildren (and I’m sure it’s been by more people than that). You don’t have to be in a leadership position to model wise, compassionate behavior. My basic point was that we’re all role models to one another and the lessons we teach through our behavior have an impact on far more people than we know. You may have been “easily replaced” in your job, but how many people did your behavior touch while you worked? While the number is unknowable, that you touched some would not be impossible to demonstrate. I wasn’t referring to grand acts that ripple through a large number of people all at once, like Nelson Mandela’s assuming the South African presidency. I meant more the everyday actions we all take that speak volumes about our character and of which others take silent note and incorporate, even unknowingly, into their own lives.


  • Alex,

    Hi again…
    Thanks for responding so warmly to my message. I’m so happy you truly felt my gratitude.


    Like Glenn, I have been a lurker until now…always there waiting to read what you will share with us, forming my thoughts and responses in my head, taking the messages and lessons with me, but never coming out to voice them.

    I came to read your post again today because this one has really stayed with me, and as I see from other comments, the feeling is mutual.

    When I read the response from Chris my heart felt so heavy. I felt this person missed the meaning completely. Not only did it appear she didn’t grasp the meaning, but saw herself as being so insignificant. Thankfully you saw this and responded just as I would expect, with patience and guidance. I wanted to address Chris myself. I hope that’s okay with you.

    Chris, everyone is significant, has purpose, and has unique gifts to share. I know it may seem small and even inconsequential in the moment, but a kind word, a good-natured gesture, a smile…can change a person’s entire outlook. Be it a loved one or a stranger you pass on the street. I know this from personal experience, and have been both the giver (I tend to be on the more compassionate side) and on the receiving end, allowing an unexpected compliment to raise my spirits.

    Every act kindness—from the grandest planned intentions to what may seem so small—they all have the power to cause that rippling effect. We all have a choice, be it a decision to want to completely change our outlook on life, to better ourselves, and in turn, those around us, being a more positive influence, or to simply want to make small changes of just being more aware of how our actions affect others.

    What we choose to share is contagious. Share a smile, I guarantee it will be passed along. Spread an ill-mood, spite, anger, etc…that too will carry forth.

    Of course it’s impossible to be bright, shiny sunshine all the time, and pretending to be would be a superficial facade. But even in challenging times, making the choice to keep happiness in our hearts, seeking the good and positive, showing kindness, and sharing it with others…has the potential to turn a dark day, into a sunny one.

    Alex, my apologies if I got too carried away. Sometimes I find myself feeling so passionate about something, I feel like I could burst, and I end up journaling, having to write it out of my head. Again, I feel you have managed to capture and re-write something that’s been said thousands of times before, in many other ways, that has really connected with people, and made the message come alive with feeling—so much more than just words on a screen.

    I hope every person that reads your post will share it with many others.

    Keeping the Ripple flowing, turning it into a ~wave~


    Shauna: No need to apologize for feeling passionate or being well-meaning.


  • I am so lucky to be married to you.

    RC: Right back at you.


  • I try and send “ripples” every day….and I’m lucky to know you too!!

    Linley: 🙂


  • Hmm, this sounds like the Butterfly Effect in chaos theory. A law of nature, no more or less, for “good” or “bad.”

    But what I’m struggling with is the way our core self wants to grasp at the significance of our influence on others and the world around us. Sure, it’s comforting to know that even though your life may seem meaningless and devoid of achievement, your actions have an affect on others and the world (hopefully a good one). But isn’t there just a little grasping ego involved in thinking that way, and how do you reconcile that need for knowing that our core self was responsible for doing something meaningful? We may never know how we’ve touched other lives, and that is ok. It also seems important to reflect on how other lives have touched us, for better or worse.

    It gives me comfort either way, knowing that this is just how things work in our universe, like gravity (which can be either a good or bad thing, depending on the situation).

  • Of course habits and traditions ripple through generations for better or worse. Look at how traditions of failure, poverty, and abuse run in some families. Just as kindness, generosity, love run through others. Better or worse ways to raise children, navigate schools and work, relate to drugs/alcohol.

    Often shifts from better/worse/better can be traced back to a single individual or a defining event.

    What we leave (our ripple) may well outlast us but it is our responsibility to do our best that it’s a good legacy.

  • Today at Tae Kwon Do, the sa bum nim told me I was a role model. Even though I often struggle to do the forms and the drills, and especially the sparring—and I don’t think I look especially good/graceful/skillful—I am out there trying and trying. So, perhaps that is my particular ripple—to keep trying and striving. To do, strive, try these things at my stage in life. That grandmotherly stage . . .

    I thought immediately of this ripple post when the sa bum nim said what he said to me today. I think this post opened me up to the aha! moment. And for that I thank you—Alex and Shauna.