The starfish story: making a difference

I’ve heard two people tell this story recently. Each told it a little differently. Wanting to share it with you, I googled and learned the original was called The Star Thrower and was published by anthropologist/philosopher/writer Loren Eiseley as part of an essay in 1969.

The story has been adapted and used by motivational speakers ever since and was also made into a children’s DVD, Sara and the Starfish, in 2008. It was adapted again as a beautifully illustrated children’s book, Starfish on the Beach, in 2012.

I found this version on Wikipedia, and apparently it doesn’t violate anyone’s copyright.

Here it is:

An old man had a habit of early morning walks on the beach. One day, after a storm, he saw a human figure in the distance moving like a dancer. As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up a starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean.

“Young lady,” he asked, “Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”

“The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die.”

“But young lady, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference.”

The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves, saying, “It made a difference for that one.”

The old man looked at the young woman inquisitively and thought about what she had done. Inspired, he joined her in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved.

If I adapted it, I would probably leave that last paragraph out. Yes, we love happy endings and want all the starfish to be saved, but that’s not why she did it, or why he joined her. Rather than detaching or being overwhelmed by the task, she took action. She threw one back, and then another, and another.

She made a difference to each one she threw back, even though they may have added up to only a tiny percentage of the washed-up, dying starfish. She did what she could.

How often do we look at some problem and feel paralyzed because it seems overwhelming? How often do we detach and think it’s not our problem? Racism, sexism, war, violence, poverty…the list goes on of seemingly intractable problems. It’s so easy to get stuck in helplessness, passivity, cynicism, separation.

And yet it’s our world.

So instead of thinking about what you can’t do, consider what you can do. What is one action you can take? What is the smallest action you can take? It might even be just to think about the problem differently. Maybe it’s a personal challenge that you need to rock yourself out of complacency.

Maybe you can make a bigger difference than you think.

Look at a problem in your life, one that seems intractable, and think of the tiniest action you can take. It doesn’t even matter what it is, as long as it is in the direction of health and resolution.

Then do it. And yes, I am talking to you.