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More Like Dog: Reactivity and the Ripple Effect

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

Like a drop in the vast ocean, each of us causes ripples as we move through our lives. The effects of whatever we do - insignificant as it may seem - spread out beyond us. We may never know what far-reaching impact even the simplest action might have on our fellow mortals. Thus we need to be conscious, all of the time, of our place in the ocean, of our place in the world, of our place among our fellow creatures. For if enough of us join forces, we can swell the tide of events - for good or for evil. Margaret Weis, The Seventh Gate

This morning I am crazy busy getting ready for the holidays. As I run up and down the stairs - picking up stuff, cleaning, moving things around for Christmas décor. I keep seeing out of the corner of my eye a children’s book on the coffee table. The title is Sorry (Really Sorry).

I’ve bought this book sometime ago, but never taken the time to read it. It keeps calling to me.

“Ok, June, stop your scurrying around and settle down. Think about what is truly important,” I tell myself.

What’s important to me is learning how to be a more compassionate, loving, forgiving person. It’s easy for me sometimes. Usually with little kids. Hurt puppies.

But sometimes things don’t go my way. People don’t act the way I think they should.

Then I fall into reactivity. I want to give people back a dose of whatever slight or hurt they gave me. Sometimes, I try to one-up whatever they have given me. That’ll teach ‘em.

Sometimes before I know it, I just pass the nastiness along to the next person I meet. And that’s what a lot of us do. It's the well-known "Ripple Effect."

It only takes one nasty acting person to get me going. But I’m wanting to change that. For me, for my relationships, for the good of the world. The Ripple Effect can work for the good as well as the bad.

Social contagion researchers James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis (authors of the book Connected) conducted several studies which show evidence that we critically influence each other for bad and for good.

Furthermore, what I do to you not only affects your actions to others, but their actions to others, and then their actions to others. The good or bad actions keep going and going…way beyond those initial interactions. We get the picture.

Fowler and Christakis point out that both good and bad actions can spread equally through social groups. BUT it’s likely that a benevolent ripple effect had huge benefits for groups over time.

Actions that increased goodwill, generosity, and cooperation increased those groups of people’s ability to survive and thrive.

I believe it. And I also know how hard it is to stop a bad ripple effect once it gets going.

You slight me, I argue with my husband. He gets mad at the accountant. And so on and on and on.

To stop a bad ripple effect, I must be self aware enough to see what's happening, be willing to change it up, and have the skills to do that.

And dog gives me an example of how I might do that.

Dog? Yeah, the dog in the Sorry story.

You see Cow was in a nasty mood. When Duck came along, Cow kicked mud in her face.

Duck takes it out on to Frog. Frog passes the nastiness on to Bird, Bird to Goat, Goat to Pig.

Dog stops it all when the nastiness comes to him. Dog even turns it around into a good ripple. How?

When Dog notices Pig snorting and crying, he asks what’s wrong.

“Go away. I don’t even like you,” Pig snorts back.

Now that sort of rude reply would have been enough to make me reactive…to unleash an arsenal of rudeness right back. I am afraid that on certain, most days, I might say something like “the heck with you, Pig. I was just trying to help.”

Then I would be storming off. Self-righteous. Indignant. Armed and ready to give the next innocent person a piece of mind.

But that’s not what Dog does. Dog just sits there and let’s Pig cry for a while. (Dog must have taken a breath to center himself I'm guessing. He must have also cared enough about Pig to try to understand. He must have also known a lot about ripple effects and compassion and being the change you want to see sort of stuff, a wise old dog).

Dog says, “I know you like me. We eat lunch every day. Sometimes you even share your favorite waffles.”

And that’s it. Pig moves into a different head space. She acknowledges loving waffles.

Pig finally gets to a place of understanding her own actions and apologizes to Dog. Dog gives Pig a big, long lick…and off we go to a story of making good ripples.

Pig nuzzles Goat. Goat brings Bird a worm…all the way back to Cow who is sorry too. Cow gets some insight about her own bad mood which started off the whole thing.

We can see the truth of social contagion in the little story. It leaves me wanting to be more mindful, more insightful about what sets me off and how to turn things around for the good of myself and others. It’s crucial understanding for surviving.... first, the holidays.

And the bigger picture…

How might our lives go better together if we understood the power of our connectedness and the power of social contagion. How might we use that knowledge to be a force for making the world (at least our little corner of it at the least) a better place…and having a lot more good days together?

(I’m quite sure we will have plenty of opportunities during the holidays to work with the ripple effect. I hope you will have an opportunity to take a breath, think about what is truly important, notice what is calling to you, and share your own stories with me. Merry Christmas, with love, June)

Read aloud of Sorry (Really Sorry)


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