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Alex Lickerman M.D.

The Rippling Effect

How our wisdom can outlast our bodies and grant us true immortality

Photo: richardefreeman

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."

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to visit Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.


About the Author

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.