It’s an old metaphor, to throw a stone in a pond and watch the ripples spread and multiply, to remind us that the things we do have effects that we don’t realize or even intend. Sometimes, you are lucky enough to find out where a ripple goes. A conversation recently with a friend reminded me of one of my own; as usual, names have been changed, and quotes are somewhat paraphrased.
Coaching high school swimming was a mixed bag of frustration and reward. Grueling schedules, uncertain weather, convoluted rules, facility issues, kids not showing, flu season, low pay…the frustrations were many. The rewards felt fewer, but man! The rewards were huge when they came.
I was a great believer in a “no cuts” policy. This was a public school sport, and unlike other sports, swimming is a life skill, and a “save-your-life” skill as well. Over the years, we had many kids come to try the team who didn’t know how to swim at all, and just wanted a chance to learn. We took them all.
In my 2nd or 3rd season with the team, a young woman, a senior, came to us during the first week of practice, and shared that she didn’t know how to swim but wanted to learn. Tiara was tall, thin and muscular, and looked like she had about 2% body fat, which is not really an ideal combination for an adult learning to swim. Fat floats, and learning to float is immeasurably important when learning to swim, so I knew we had our work cut out for us. It was a challenge, but she was determined, and so was I. We used aerobic float belts, kick boards, pull buoys…basically whatever it took to assist her with the float part so that she could learn the swim techniques that would eventually overcome her lack of flotation.
She was without a doubt our most dedicated attendee at practice, and worked hard. By January (our season began in November), we talked about her racing in a meet. She very nervously and somewhat reluctantly agreed, so we taught her to dive, and in a meet toward the end of that month, she raced a 50 freestyle for the very first time. It was one of my proudest moments as a coach, and I didn’t think I could be happier or more gratified with our work together.
I was wrong. You see, I hadn’t seen the ripple yet.
Fast forward a couple years to another meet, another group of kids. During a break in the action, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to find a grinning Tiara at my side. We shared a big hug, and the talk naturally moved straight into “What are you doing these days?!” She caught me up with what she had been up to, and then shared that since she left school, she had been teaching swim lessons to kids like her, teenagers who didn’t know how to swim. My recollection is that it was her appreciation of what we had done for her, what she had learned and overcome with the support of the swim team, that had inspired her to pay-it-forward.
I was floored. I thought that the reward from that stone I’d thrown in the pond was her personal accomplishment, but that was just the beginning. It was a stunning reminder that our actions have ripples, and that we don’t know the lives we end up touching without ever knowing.
This was a humbling moment. Fortunately in this case, the stone I threw created positive ripples, but the ripples of our actions can just as easily be harmful. It is a reminder to be careful and mindful in our interactions with others so that the ripples we make are positive, and that what others pay forward in our names are things we are proud to own. We may never know where the ripple lands, but if we throw our stones with care and love and concern for others, chances are the ripples will carry that as well.