The ripples of anonymity

I was working on a lesson plan for my students when the horrific events in France unfolded at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo. I’m sharing the words I wrote to them in the hope that ripples of the small acts described here might one day reach all shores ...

Anyone can be controlling, manipulating others when the opportunity arises. However, this control is an illusion. It requires a surrender from the other side, a conscious decision to cede one’s power to another. It’s inflicted upon others rather than offered.

True power, on the other hand, is found in the attempts to lift others up. It’s an offer without strings. The difference between merely controlling others and the utilization of real power is the difference between working a puppet and releasing a helium balloon. Afterwards, only one feels free.

You’ve probably become accustomed to being powerless: Your parents, coaches, and teachers usually make decisions for you. You’re told what to do, how to do it, and where to put it when finished. Granted, all of us have your best interests at heart. Still, is it any wonder that you, my students, have trouble realizing how much power you actually have to change the world around you?

For instance, have you ever been the victim of gossip but been unable to figure out who started it? Maybe you know of someone else who was smeared with a lie but never found out who set it in motion. This often results in a victim mentality; you look at every person around you as if she or he could have done this to you. This is the horrible truth about gossip: It changes the way you look at your world. All you see are the worst parts of human nature. When you don’t know who started it, you end up assuming everyone did.

Hurting others like this isn’t demonstrating power. It doesn’t take much effort to poke fun of someone, to bully or spread rumors. It’s what weak, insecure people do. But what if we turned gossip on its head and tried to spread something that actually made people feel good about themselves? What if we helped others look around and assume only positive things about the people surrounding them?

True power exists in performing small acts for others without taking credit. The element of anonymity allows the beneficiaries to regard every person they see as capable of having done them this service. They are left to view the world around them through a lens of gratitude rather than fear or anger. When they can’t limit their thankfulness to one person, they must show it to all. As a result, they expand their pool of things for which to be grateful. The real gift, therefore, is not really the act itself. Instead, it’s the wonderful confusion you leave with that person as he or she ponders who could have done such a nice thing.

These acts aren’t measured in size (you don’t have to spend lots of money or donate your belongings to charity) but rather in the motivation behind them: A note of encouragement slipped anonymously into a locker to inspire a fellow student who’s struggling. A flower with a poem attached to cheer someone up who’s just lost her dog. Shoveling your elderly neighbor’s driveway and leaving before they even realized you were there.

The evidence of real power exists in the smile of someone who’d been in pain just before they opened your note. It’s in the tears of gratitude when a box of food appears on the doorstep just when it was needed most - and with nary a note to explain how it got there. It’s embodied in their efforts to find someone to thank, and it’s strengthened in their inability to find that someone. Just as bullies have usually been bullied themselves, people who experience these anonymous efforts tend to look for ways to pass them on and pay them forward.

Suddenly, yet subtly, the world around us changes.

Use your power. You can wield it in a way the adults around you can’t. You can reach out to people we never knew were suffering. In the process, you create ripples that have an effect far beyond your immediate surroundings. They will reach unseen shores as other people are moved to act as you have, and the best part is that they’ll always come back to you. This is a power that never diminishes; it only gets stronger with use.

Go ahead: Change the world. I dare you.

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