In Ray Bradbury’s “The Sound of Thunder,” the accidental killing of a butterfly changes history. I remember after I read it as a kid thinking that whatever I touched in nature might alter the future, and my sixth grade teacher reinforced that—saying that yes, every blade of grass we touch when we walk is forever changed and what follows from that change we can’t know.
Just what a kid with anxiety needs to hear! What was I doing with every step I took? Was I impacting future presidents, as Bradbury’s character did? Let’s just say I walked on a lot of sidewalks for a while.
In my favorite movie of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life, I learned another lesson in how our existence impacts the world around us. As Clarence escorts George through the world he knows—or he thought he knew—he sees how much would be different in a world that never knew a George Bailey.
From the name of the town (from Bedford Falls to Pottersville) to numerous deaths, including his brother, a townsperson Mr. Gower would have accidentally poisoned, and the countless lives that his brother Harry wouldn’t have been able to save in the war because he wouldn’t have been there to do it…George’s life matters.
Profound, isn’t it?
As Clarence says, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?
…You see, George, you really had a wonderful life…”
While I absolutely adore the movie, I have to say that this depth of impact that George has on his world can leave a person (say…me, perhaps) looking at her own life and thinking, “Well, I haven’t done anything like that to make a difference. If I hadn’t been born, no towns would have their names changed…no lives would be saved…”
I look at my own small little life and know that my ripples haven’t flowed very far at all.
It can leave an introspective 10-year-old feeling a little hollow—but hopeful that as life goes on, her ripples will undulate further and make a difference.
Fast forward to that little girl being deep into her 40s…with ripples that still haven’t traveled very far.
Society values numbers. The bigger the better…the more the merrier…The Powerball has reached a billion! We must all play now! Because 500 million wasn’t nearly as tempting! (Trust me—I played once it got that big, too.)
Even with something as horrific as murders—numbers matter. As a Chicagolander, it sickens me to see the morbid tally of homicides covered by the news. The body count becomes its own story.
But for each murder, a family is irreparably damaged. Singularly devastated. It doesn’t matter if the city has 200 or 250 murders to its count—not to each and every one touched by their unique loss. Of course, those numbers most certainly show the depth of the crisis, but no murder should be accepted as tolerable, right?
Greater numbers—both good and bad—do have a bigger impact on the world.
So where does that leave me and my tiny ripples?
What would It’s a Wonderful Life have looked like if the only thing Clarence showed George was that his never being born meant that his children wouldn’t have been born, either?
Or that Uncle Billy didn’t have him around as a support system, so his life unraveled? And that in turn devastated his mom?
Aren’t those examples alone enough to help George see that his life is worth living? While it wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic as the complete changing of a town and scores of lives saved, I know the message my 10-year-old self would have received was that truly ordinary lives matter.
Ripples that don’t touch a whole town still can touch a family. Ripples that don’t save lives can still help and enrich others. Ripples that don’t stop a Potter can still love a Mary.
Yeah…I think I would like to see that movie. Actually…maybe I’m living it. Maybe you are, too. Maybe on days where we feel like we just aren’t enough, we should remember that we are…at least to someone…and that includes if that “someone” is simply…you.
The path we walk does leave an imprint on the world. The reality is that for very few of us will it be George Bailey-esque. (And for even fewer will it be butterfly-esque.)
But it matters nonetheless. And each day that we are here means the “mattering” can take on a different shape or reach a different depth. We continue to write our story.
Rarely will we have a visit from Clarence and know in our lifetime the exact impact we are making or will leave—that’s one thing my sixth grade teacher got right. All we can do is try our best again and again…and again…and then remember we are enough.
More doesn’t always mean better. Sometimes enough is just right.
PS: if you got through this post without once reading “ripples” as “nipples” and then giggling a little, I commend you. You are certainly more mature than I am.