“Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.”
Anyone who ever stood at the water’s edge as a child, throwing rocks with abandon, knows the imagery in that quote, from the Dalai Lama.
The problem is, just as the pebble is ignorant of its effect on the water’s surface, we seldom see or consider the far-reaching impact of our words and actions — for good, or otherwise.
But, occasionally, we’re allowed to see those ripples emanating out from a single action, a single point in time, to remind us we all are connected, and our acts touch countless others — either to build them up, or tear them down.
Just such a rippling effect was revealed this week in the beautiful story of 92-year-old Melpomeni (Gianopoulou) Dina, after she met at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem with descendants of a Jewish family she helped protect and escape from Nazi death squads in Veria, Greece, in 1943.
Young Melpomeni and her elder sisters, Efthimia and Bithleem, themselves impoverished orphans, risked their lives and gave up their own meager rations to care for the Mordechai family. When the Mordechais were betrayed by townspeople, the Gianopoulou sisters again risked their lives to help them flee.
Sunday, Dina met 40 descendants of the Mordechai family. After embracing them all, Dina said she could now “die quietly,” according to the Associated Press. She was blessed to see the ripples of her courageous acts, in the lives and loves of those 40 descendants of the family she helped save.
Few of us ever have a moment like that — of being able to see, lined up in front of us, all the ways our lives have rippled out into the world and impacted others’ lives.
Without seeing those effects, it’s easy to become despondent, and believe — erroneously — we are not “making a mark” on the world around us. I admit, after I left the Navy in 2005, I went through a long, dark valley of depression, believing I no longer had before me the capacity to do anything “great” with my life.
I wasted an obscene amount of my God-given time wallowing in self-pity. My problem then, and the problem I see before so much of society today, is a grossly misaligned, prideful definition of greatness.
We are conditioned by our society, from childhood, to see greatness in titles, accolades, possessions and great monuments in the public square. But, while great things often happen within that context, such public recognition is not the true definition of greatness.
Martin Luther King Jr., a man most of society would unequivocally hail as great, tells us greatness lies in the little things. “If I cannot do great things,” he said, “I can do small things in a great way.”
St. (Mother) Teresa of Calcutta echoed that sentiment. “Not all of us can do great things,” she said. “But we can do small things with great love.”
It was her dedication to small acts of love, not the media attention late in her life and in her death, that made her a saint. Had she never been known publicly (which would have been her preference), she would have been no less great.
When we act with the love of St. Teresa, the courage of the Gianopoulou sisters, or the conviction of King, we make ourselves great, and that greatness ripples into the world — even if we never see the ripples, and the world never sees us.
It is not the perception of these acts that makes them great, or the recognition of them. It is the love with which we do them. Another saint, Josemaría Escrivá, tells us there are no small acts when they are done with selfless love.
“Do everything for Love,” Escrivá wrote. “Thus there will be no little things: everything will be big. Perseverance in little things for Love is heroism.”
Melpomeni Dina is, without doubt, a hero.
But, we do not have to wait for some “grand moment” in history to be like her. Perhaps it’s time we acknowledge all that is good in our society is shaped not so much by monolithic achievements, as it is by our innumerable, unseen pebbles of kindness, compassion and courage.
In our everyday lives, in every corner of the seemingly mundane business of society, we have the capacity, and I would say, the duty, to live with the same reckless, self-outpouring love and courage that is so often memorialized in the monuments of public memory.
Most of us never will be memorialized in such ways. Ultimately, though, a better society is not built on monoliths. It is built on countless pebbles of irrational, selfless love.
We cannot help but leave ripples in our daily lives. If we make those ripples tend toward love, we cannot help but be great.