Paying it forward helps EMS
Laws of conservation don’t apply to human emotions, so share kindness and get it right back
By Steve Whitehead
Paying it forward isn’t just a hokey concept. Yes, it was popularized by a somewhat cheesy Hollywood movie back in 2000, but the concept works. In big and small ways, every day, you are paying it forward. This works for the good that we do as well as the bad. And it works because emotions are not conserved.
Allow me to explain that last part.
In the late 18th century, Antoine Lavoisier first proposed the law of conservation of mass. This revolutionary proposal suggested that mass, the stuff we handle every day, was neither created nor destroyed, it only changed forms.
Antoine’s observation applies to all matter, from hydrogen ions to jelly doughnuts. For example, if you show up to work with a hot cup of coffee and a jelly doughnut, your day is off to a good start. Let’s say you give away your jelly doughnut to a coworker. That was nice of you, but you no longer have a jelly doughnut to eat. You can’t give something away and still have it. Also note that, if your coworker then eats the jelly doughnut, it doesn’t cease to exist. It simply changes form – usually in some way that’s not flattering in their uniform.
This is the law of conservation at work. We don’t create matter and we don’t destroy it. It merely exists. We can possess it and pass it on and even change its form, but we have no say on its existence.
The same does not hold true for the way we feel.
Share kindness and keep it too
Sometimes we like to think of our emotional state as matter. We imagine that our emotions were not created by us, but were given to us by some outside source. We also convince ourselves that the best way to be happy is to hoard our positive emotions and give the bad ones away.
Our emotional state is not conserved like matter. It doesn’t follow the law of conservation. In the world of human emotion, what we share expands. Unlike our jelly doughnut, we can give away an emotion and still keep it. You can give away anger and bitterness all day and still have the same amount when you’re done. What is given is also kept; therefore, emotions spread faster and farther than hydrogen ions or jelly doughnuts.
If you greet your partner in the morning with a jelly doughnut, grateful as he or she may be, they will be hard-pressed to spread your generosity farther than their waiting stomach. Greet them with joy or laughter or anger or frustration and they will be apt to pass it on.
This is worth understanding in EMS because we have such amazing opportunities to pass on things like joy and happiness and understanding and patience and kindness (especially kindness). We also are afforded ample opportunity to pass on anger and frustration and resentment and so many other negative bits of attitude, if we choose.
Let go of anger and it disappears
Our business is a human business. We connect with hundreds of individuals each day, and with each connection exists the opportunity to pass on a little piece of our own emotional state. We rarely reflect on the impact of the emotional content that we dump into the world, but it can be far-reaching and profound.
The anger and frustration that you pass on to the local nursing home staff might get passed on to their coworkers or patients or families. The kindness that you show a homeless patient might get passed on to the emergency room staff or the social worker whom they encounter next.
Your dismissive shrug when a patient expresses fear or concern may be recalled months or years later in a moment of crisis, or while retelling the story to a friend, or while standing in a voting booth considering a funding measure. The ten seconds that you take to kneel down next to a scared child and say, “Hey little man, we’re going to take good care of your mom” may be remembered for a lifetime.
When we understand that there is no law of conservation for emotional states, we recognize how critical our role is in passing on only the best within us. We have no obligation to take or keep or pass on any of the anger, fear, frustration, hatred or despair that is so often heaped upon us. The moment we let it go of it, it ceases to exist. We can consciously become a dead end for all of those emotional states.
Get back what you give
We can also take responsibility for the emotional energy that we choose to create and pass on to others. Let go of the idea that your internal flow of emotions appear from some mysterious place within you and that you are helpless to control your own emotional state of mind. You are the creator of your own internal dialogue and your emotional state. Part of the privilege of wearing an EMS uniform should be choosing to create and pass on only the best within you.
I was thinking this all over recently during one of our EMT classes. One question I like to ask new EMT students is, “What made you want to become a part of emergency services?” I’m pleasantly surprised at how frequently the motivation to become an EMT stems from some childhood experience with emergency services. In EMS, our own goodwill is often amplified and carried forward in ways more far-reaching and profound than we can ever imagine.
Paying it forward works. And the best part is, much of what we pay forward comes right back to us.