March 9, 2014

Paying it Outward. ~ Stephanie Bullard Lancaster


It is the concept that each of us creates —often without our conscious intent or knowledge —concentric circles of influence that may affect others for years, or even generations.

There are three main things that scare people about dying:  physical pain in the present (Will it hurt?), emotional pain related to the future (How will my loved ones and I go on without each other?), and emotional distress/worrying about the past (Will I be remembered?).

I’m not sure about the first two. We like to believe that we can control most or all of the physical pain with medication and human touch. Most people think that dying brings a sense of relief to the person who dies so that he or she is not worrying and does not have a sense of time or of separation from those left behind. Neither of these two things are really something we can know for sure until it is our time to go on ahead. The last one, though, is something that I think we can consider as we go about our daily lives.

In Irvin Yalom’s book, Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Fear of Death, the author talks about something he calls “Rippling.” It is the concept that each of us creates—often without our conscious intent or knowledge—concentric circles of influence that may affect others for years, or even generations. Rippling refers to leaving behind something from your life experience, some trait, some piece of wisdom, guidance, virtue, or comfort that passes on to others, and then has the possibility of then being passed on by those to still others.

This is “paying it forward” in every sense of the word.

Actually, a better definition might be “paying it outward.” It’s an opportunity afforded to each of us on a daily basis.  It happens when an act of kindness has been witnessed or received or even just talked about. It happens when words of wisdom or just plain old words are heard, considered, and repeated. These things can alter the thoughts, behaviors, words, and perspectives of others, which can then create a chain effect.

Kindness is something that binds human beings together, from individuals and communities to generations and civilizations.

It puts the focus on what we, as a society, think is right and often on what we hope would be done for us should we find ourselves in a less fortunate position some day. It benefits the kindness-giver, the kindness-receiver, and those who bear witness to the kindness. The point of true kindness is just that—to be kind. It carries on, long afterwards, and its impact, like that of people who regularly practice it, can be almost unbelievably far-reaching.

What do most of us want to be remembered for, after we go on ahead? 

Probably not something like being a good employee, or keeping a tidy house, or have a cool car, or wearing fashionable clothes. Probably, hopefully, we want to be remembered for our positive actions, particularly those that have positively affected other people.

Being remembered in that way is rippling.

It is proof that our actions and words live on long after we do, in the way that the words of our parents somehow end up coming out of our own mouths; in the stories told about us by our children to their children; in the things we have done that our loved ones talk about or think about because they find those things funny/brave/smart; in the perspective of those who have known us and in those who have known those who have known us.

When my kids were little, someone once asked me what I wanted them to “be” when they grew up. I’m sure she was wondering what I wanted them to have for a career. I’m certain that she expected me to say something like a teacher, a doctor, or an architect.  Or maybe she thought I’d say that I wanted them to be rich and/or famous.  Regardless, what I said was this: “I want them to be kind.”

She thought for a minute and then said, “Well, be careful with that, because you don’t want them to always put others in front of themselves. You don’t want them to change who they are to suit others.”

I believe she had kindness confused with niceness.

Kindness is the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate. To her first point, it can include how one treats oneself as well as how one treats others. Niceness is being pleasant, agreeable, and satisfactory. I don’t think it’s always the right choice to be nice, but I do think it’s always best to be kind, to ourselves and to others.

In some cases, kindness may mean just considering someone else’s perspective, background, or circumstances; it may mean being a little less harsh in our opinions or a little more cautious in jumping to conclusions. It may simply mean opening ourselves up to the possibility of having our perspective changed by thinking about someone else’s situation.

That can’t be wrong. 

Being kind allows us to take what we know, what we believe, and the experiences of all that has impacted us in our lives and use it as a kind of Viewfinder that we look through to compose and focus on the Big Picture.

We are altered by those we love and by those who love us.

We have been changed by many people whom we know and whom we have known. In fact, we have been impacted in some way by everyone who has crossed our paths. And crossing paths with us in turn affects others; it is our form of Immortality. Our choices determine whether that impact is for the better or for the worse, and that is something that we can work on every day of our lives, something we can control in this out-of-control world.

Rippling is not a theory. Each person undoubtedly lives on in the effects of our actions, words, thoughts, and perspective; in the memories of others and even in cases when our impact isn’t linked to an actual memory but to the ripples we have generated.

Whether we intend to have an effect or not, those ripples are created, and so the answer to the question we are all likely to ask when our time to go on ahead comes is a resounding yes—we will be remembered. We will have left a mark. There will be a rippling as a result of our having been here.

Each of us will have an impact of some sort.

We can do what we think is right, we can practice kindness or whatever else we choose to do, and then we can hope that what we leave behind is for the good and trust that it will then be passed on to others and then others and others far, far into the future.

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Stephanie Bullard Lancaster