Or, Thermodyamics and the Human Impact
Or, Newton Knows Footprints
Or, Niko's 3rd Iteration on the Same Theme (needs to branch out)
Or, 13 Ways of Looking at Influence
Zachary knows when he’s trouble.
He senses it, almost immediately, even if I’m rooms away, as if something in the air tips him off, my anger manifest in some bodily emission that rapidly pursues, with heat-seeking accuracy, it’s source. That chemical signal rounds corners and deftly, inaudibly negotiates doors and stairs (which is unfair because that spoils my dramatic entry and gives him time to plan, diluting my affect). Because he’s so keen to that chemical signature, and because he grows craftier by the day, he’s developed coping mechanisms/strategies/preemptive strikes/countermeasures/anti-venom (choose-your-own tone). One in particular diverts daddy’s anger with ridiculous accuracy.
I round corners, trample hallways, level the stairs, huffing with leaden steps (I don’t do stealth), trying to find the kid. Invariably, he meets me half-way (having sensed me and chosen to preempt his doom before the countdown reaches “0”).
“Daddy, come here,” he looks up, signaling me to drop to my face. “I have to tell you a secret.” He grabs the back of my head and neck to pull me down. The contact alone cools my blood from a boil to a simmer. This kid knows the power of touch.
I drop, falling prey, again, to his seductions. My cause no longer relevant, he’ll whisper again, “Daddy, I have to tell you a secret,” and then he plants a deliberate, soft, just long enough kiss on my cheek that would settle all conflicts if weaponized and diffused from rainbow-colored bombers.
He lets go, carefully scanning my face for the desired reaction. If he sees stern, he pulls me down to tell me the secret—that he loves me. But he rarely sees stern. He sees a dad, cheerily, clumsily defeated and calm, resolute but diplomatic and so much kinder. The kid is undefeated and I—we, defeated, are better for it.
Zachary is a schemer. Having dabbled in the art of the deal, this 6-yr. old is always propositioning me. Still a novice, his propositions, couched in win-win language, are shamelessly zero-sum; but I love the effort. He hasn’t always been this way. We older, wizened versions of this kid, similarly crafty, haven’t always been this way, either. We experienced Newton and his laws of motion before we understood Newton’s laws of motion.
Unconsciously at first and then with waking awareness, our footprints modify the world around us. Zachary’s kisses weren’t always intended to diffuse bombs. Initially, this tender child gave kisses because he wanted to show some love. He would rest his hand over mine because he craved the contact. He would say “I love you” because he had a feeling he fearlessly needed to share. Then, he realized that these tiny gestures, selfish and pure in motive, had a profound effect on his mom and me.
Childhood is about discovery, specifically that I—a small, nominally developed atom in a big organism, can impact the world around me. HOW AWESOME! The child realizes he can push the resting plate of food off the high chair; a crashing Jackson Pollack appears on the floor. He can throw food at mom, and she’ll make a silly face. She can hit a resting ball and make it fly. If she hits it harder and with a heavier bat, if will fly higher and farther. Adults often forget but awaken to the truth, too. The family can choose to recycle rather than throw away—can re-purpose that object that would otherwise lay dormant in a landfill, leaching into our soil and water, now a threat to ecosystems, our health, and our fears. The researcher can develop a technology with superhuman potential. What is the prescribed use? Into whose hands does it fall? To whom does she sell it? Reality is altered and the researcher reaps a windfall of wealth, satisfaction—and maybe guilt.
Zachary can shake his still sleeping father, and he’ll wake up. The child’s goals are now external. Zachary’s kisses, he now knows, are loaded weapons. He recognizes his power; he showers us with intent.
What Newton uncovered about physics often applies to social dynamics. His footprints are epic in depth and breadth! Gravity and the apple are analogues for our lives.
Zachary realizes that telling the “secret” both changes me and him. We are both moved, our emotional imbalance restored, topped with a dollop of joy. I realize that when I start my day with levity and affirmations, my students’ days are improved, which makes me feel good. My students realize raising a hand draws out a positive response from me, which then positively affects them. Being kind and gracious to the server at the restaurant improves that person’s dignity and enhances night out. Looking someone in the eyes improves our interaction. Standing in opposition to injustice thwarts the progress of evil and emboldens the activist. And on and on. A self-fulfilling prophecy—who knows? But we can’t expect change without some change, and we do impact the world and people around us. In minuscule ways or by orders of magnitude, oblivious or aware, we are influential. And knowing that means we can shape our world, too.
We. Can. Shape. Our. World.
Think about that! How often to do we hear it, shrug, dismiss it as a childish sentiment? “Yeah, right,” and move on? That reaction is a choice; it sustains the status quo and buries my real power beneath illusions of helplessness. Zachary knows it’s true. He plays me daily!
Whether I’m being deliberate or not, the world and my interactions, become my pallet. This is a daunting truth. If the nature of that world matters to me, it demands my attention and work and selflessness. It demands faith that improving your lot reflexively improves mine.
Cognitive scientists who research altruism have perhaps killed the romantic notion by chalking it up to some chemical reaction. Who know (or cares)? Zachary exerted power over me before he knew it. Cognizant of his power, he now doles out the kisses both indiscriminately and with intent. This little anecdote has been an instructive reminder. It’s not hyperbole to admit that those little kisses remind me that every choice I make, everything I do, matters. In our choose-your-own-adventure world, these little gestures illuminate a wise, beneficent path.
And Zachary is no longer in trouble.
Director, Global Initiative
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