Mind Matters — Ripples and Regrets

Death is not a topic that people like to address. Even though we know we are all mortal, we live in a culture that avoids its contemplation. Despite the fact that the baby boomers are in their 60’s now, we remain a youth culture. And youth, too, unfortunately are not immune to a too soon face off with mortality.

When I was 14, and believed in the immortality of the young, my thirteen-year-old cousin was hit by a car and died. That was the first crash of my assumptive world. Coming to a “new normal” world with mortality in its landscape didn’t come easy then nor does it come easy now. So what might help us in our anxiety regarding the inevitable?

Psychiatrist, Irvin Yalom, is a highly respected writer on issues of the human condition. In Staring at the Sun: overcoming the terror of death, he helps us confront our fears. He notes that in all his years of working with an individual’s death anxiety, he has found the idea of “rippling” the most powerful. Yalom says, “Rippling 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 for generations.”

The most anonymous among us can lay claim to rippling. This is not about monuments and edifices. “Sic transit Gloria mundi” is the refrain said to every pope as he takes the throne. “So goes the glory of the world”—power, fame, and fortune are all transient. “The Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, They’re only made of clay, But our love is here to stay” goes the song.

So, yes, love is, indeed, one of the ripples that carry on beyond us. Rippling includes acts of kindness, wisdom, comfort.

Yalom illustrates the profundity of rippling’s effects with a client’s story. This woman had been overwhelmed at times with death anxiety. Then two incidents occurred which changed her life’s fear of death. At a school reunion, she discovered how she had affected an old childhood friend with her early wisdom. Even the friend’s teenager sang her praises about how important she had been to her mother. On the trip home from that encounter, she considered that death was not the annihilation she feared. She considered, Yalom writes, “Perhaps it was not so essential that her person or even memories of her person survived. Perhaps the important thing was that her ripples persist, ripples of some act or idea that would help others attain joy and virtue in life, ripples that would fill her with pride and act to counter the immortality, horror, and violence monopolizing the mass media and the outside world.”

Soon after this epiphany, her mother died, and along came a corollary revelation. One of her mother’s favorite phrases struck her: “Look for her among her friends.” At the funeral, she observed aspects of her mother rippling through the assembly. She intuited these ripples of her mother’s caring and love of life rippling on to their children and onward into the stream of life.

So perhaps we need to ask ourselves, no matter our age, what kind of ripples would we like to make? It all counts. Rather than stacking up more regrets for what we’ve done or failed to do, why not consider the ripples we now can make?

Ripples of care, and generosity that the future will feel and rejoice in. Let the refrain ripple on: “The Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, They’re only made of clay. But our love is here to stay.”