It has been speculated that if you were to go back in time thousands of years and, say, step on a single insect, and then hop right back into your time machine and return to the present day, the world would be rendered dramatically different, perhaps even unrecognizably so.
The implication, of course, is that everything in the Universe is interconnected in ways we cannot even begin to comprehend. Every single thing that happens influences (and is influenced by) every other single thing that happens, so that a) it’s nearly impossible to trace the true origin of things as they currently are, and b) it becomes clear that even the most seemingly disparate things are more intimately related than we can typically imagine, be they on the level of particle or person. The Universe, it turns out, is an ongoing and ever-expanding game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon on every conceivable (and inconceivable) scale.
Things that may seem completely insignificant or irrelevant to our own individual lives may, in fact, be determining the fate of them to a much larger extent than we are even capable of realizing. The past figures into our every experience and behavior in myriad ways. Our every experience and behavior, in turn, reverberate into the future. Ripple effects abound.
The more deeply you wander down this particular intellectual rabbit hole, the more you see (especially with the aid of hindsight) just how intertwined things are. If you keep speculating on how “if it weren’t for this…I’d never have that”, you find that the this and that become increasingly distant and less and less obviously connected, even though they are, in fact, traceable to each other.
If it weren’t for countless different occurrences, I’d never be writing this blog post right now. Of course, I had to make the decision to write it. But before that could happen, ideas had to coalesce in my brain (influenced by a lifelong collection of ideas from all kinds of sources outside my noggin). WordPress had to have been created (not to mention the Internet) for me to post it and for you to be reading it in this format. Computers had to have been invented, built, manufactured, and made available en masse for that to happen. Typewriters and printing presses before that. Time travel stories had to have been told over the course of millenia (yes, millenia!) and had to have reached me, passed along via a wide variety of people and media. I had to have learned how to read and write, which happened with the assistance of my parents (who first had to meet), my grade school teachers, and the people who taught all of them so that they could someday teach me. I had to have been born in an English-speaking country, and that language had to first have evolved from Proto-Germanic. Humans had to have developed the capacity for language to begin with. And on and on and on it goes, endlessly and through the effects of endless ripples in combination with one another. And this is how the people who taught the people who taught the people who taught Shakespeare’s parents how to read and write, for instance, are directly connected to, and in part responsible for, the blog post you are reading right now!
Given that ripple effects can render results so far afield from their points of origin, how does pondering them help us in our day-to-day lives? If literally our every breath interacts with the world around us in such unpredictable and ultimately unknowable ways, how then should/could an awareness of ripple effects influence our own decision-making? And, if our every move has so many precursors influencing it to begin with, how much free will are we really even exerting when we do make decisions?
(I will use my own perceived sense of free will [however delusional it may be] in an effort to grapple with these questions.) 🙂
While it appears to be the case that the ripples from any given action are quickly out of our control as soon as we have set something in motion and it merges with the ever mysterious cosmic soup of Life, just contemplating the thought of ripple effects can make us more sensitive to, and aware of, the simple fact that our actions will have longer-term consequences. That they will echo through time. That they matter!
We can act more often with conscious intent, and also learn from other ripples that we, or others, have created in the past (to the – granted, very limited – extent that these ripples are evident to us). We can use our own life experiences as a guide here. We know, for instance, what gestures and actions made by other people have meant a great deal to us, and choose to do similar (or opposing) things on behalf of ourselves and others. We also can sometimes clearly see when certain actions we’ve taken have led to a bounty of subsequent good fortune, and choose to do more of those. It’s true that luck (or forces beyond our control) can be a big factor in some instances, and the good fortune may not necessarily be replicable. But when we look to our habits – the things we do repeatedly and consistently – we may have a more reliable source of information. Which habitual activities or ways of being reap us benefits most of the time, and which ones tend to sabotage us? I have found, for instance, that the seven habits I wrote about in this post from last year seem to create very positive ripple effects in my life. (For those who don’t feel like reading the whole post at this time, those seven habits are: meditation, reading, creative play, exercise, journaling, writing/blogging, and decluttering.)
Of course, life is complex, and many (most? all?) actions have a complex mixture of results. Some actions may even end up having primarily the opposite of their intended effect. But we can operate under the premise that certain actions have a tendency to create certain results: that, for instance, violence tends to beget more violence, that kindness tends to beget more kindness. We can speculate as to what ripple effects different choices are likely to produce, and perhaps the best any of us can do in life is act according to our best, most thoughtful, informed, and conscious judgments at any given moment. We are all going to have, individually and collectively, multiple impacts on multiple things, and not be aware of the majority of them. But the consideration of ripple effects may be the key way in which we can have a chance at any deliberate impact at all in the brief flicker of time we are here for, be it 19 years or 91.
To affect one is to affect the whole, just as affecting the whole will ultimately affect every one.
It seems to me, then, a worthwhile endeavor to observe our lives (and Life) more carefully, to pay attention to which actions/choices/decisions tend to reap more positive consequences vs. negative ones – and then, in turn, do more of the former and less of the latter. To keep working at refining our lifestyles accordingly as we assimilate more information and feedback.
Writer/philosopher Sam Keen has said that, while the most direct path to the best possible life you could live may not be abundantly clear, when you act with compassion you are always heading in the right direction. And he notes that the word “compass” is even embedded within the word “compassion”, making for a wonderful mnemonic device. You can, as one approach to life, use compassion as your compass.
What kinds of ripples do you want to create with the stones you toss into the cosmic soup of Life? What ideas do you want to spread while you are around to spread them? What influence do you wish to have? What do you want your life to stand for? To the extent that you might have some say in the matter, what do you want your legacy to be? Act as if everything you do has ripple effects. Because, without fail, everything you do does.