Monday, May 07, 2007

Starfish

There have been times in my life when I’d wonder if it’s all worth it. Not like I would ever take myself out or anything like that, but in a more global sense. It’s a feeling best characterized by the phrase, “What’s the use?” It could be a profound sense of worthlessness, of under appreciation, of being taken for granted… of feeling like a doormat. Sometimes it seems that no matter how hard we work, no matter how sincere the intent and no matter what the sacrifice, in the end it makes no difference.

And then there’s the starfish parable. I first heard it in a lecture given about Mahatma Gandhi by his grandson at UC Davis sometime in 2004. I have heard a few different versions of it since, but the moral is still the same. It goes something like this:

An old man was walking along his favorite beach one morning, enjoying the sunlight caressing his face, deeply inhaling the freshness of the ocean and listening to the waves crashing upon the beach. As he rounded a point, he was met with a horrifying sight. Thousands and thousands of starfish were washed up on the beach and stranded there as the tide receded. If they did not get back to the water soon, they would surely die.

Moving with agility he thought had left him long ago, the old man frantically picked up as many starfish as he could and threw them back into the ocean. After throwing back hundreds of starfish, the beach was still littered with thousands of starfish, yet the old man never stopped throwing them back. Sitting on a rock nearby, a younger man watched the old man throw the starfish back. He had a bewildered look on his face, not understanding why this old man would care so much about a few starfish.

“Hey old man!” the younger man yelled.

The old man stopped for a moment to see what this younger man wanted.

“Why are you throwing all those starfish back into the sea?” the young man asked.

The old man looked at the younger man with a quizzical look. “Why, to save their lives,” he said matter-of-factly.

“But you can’t possibly save them all,” the young man said. “Look at how many there are. There must be thousands. What difference can you possibly make?”

“I might not be able to save them all,” the old man said. “But it makes on hell of a difference to this one.”

And the old man threw another starfish back into the sea.

When I heard this story for the first time, I got what is probably the primary lesson that Gandhi was trying to get across. The story shows how a simple act of kindness can have a profound effect not on the masses, not in monumental proportions and not in quantity, but in a single solitary instance to a single soul. The effect need not last years, months, days or even hours. It could be as fleeting as a heartbeat and not remembered much longer - but it’s real.

The other side of this story is one I only recently discovered. There have been times in my life when I was the starfish, times when my life was “saved” by a simple act of kindness. It could be as simple as being thanked when no thanks was expected or being told that I mean something, even though I know I do. Acknowledgment of being a positive influence in the lives of others is worth more than all the money in the world.

Take the time to appreciate those who have touched your life. Tell them what they mean to you. You might just be saving a starfish's life.

18 comments:

kenju said...

Excellent post, Mike and very true. It costs nothing to be kind and to show others how much their kindnesses mean to us.

Snaggle Tooth said...

I've never heard the Starfish version of this philosphy, thanks for relaying it! I have too, felt the starfish role in my life many times, n also attempted to save as many others lives as possible, no matter the form.
I believe this is why the Earth still spins... n I am still here.

michelle said...

i've never heard this story before, but i love it. i know i take for granted those that "save my life" and it's nice to be reminded.. thanks mike

Awareness said...

I love this story too! I first read it not too long ago and I think it affected me exactly the same way it touched you.

Sometimes we are the one's reaching out......and it matters to that individual......and sometimes we are the recipients.

I think it's been about a year since I found you out there in cyberspace. It's a blessing and a sense of reassurance I feel whenever I visit with you....it truly is.

sometimes i feel like we are on very similar paths of self enlightenment.....that sounds a bit lofty, but i think you know what i mean.

Wordnerd said...

Knowing when you're the starfish and when you're the old man is one of the ways of discovering that you finally know who you are. Thanks for a wonderful, meaningful post, Mike.

Just a trumpet player said...

You just made my day. Thank you...

Bob-kat said...

I have heard this story told differently but I like this way best. It is so simple a truth and yet so easily overlooked in the everyday hurly-burly of life.

I can name countless times when I've been the star fish, and you are so right, it is often just a small act of recognition that makes the difference.

Layla (aka Barbara) said...

I have always loved that story. It makes your point perfectly. I often find myself thinking the same way, "what's the use" but if we all felt that way all the time things would be way worse than they are now.

Lisa said...

I've always loved that parable. Thank you for the reminder...

mckay said...

you and jamie dawn have been my 'old men' in the blogosphere. your continued touching base- even when i'm too harried to take the time to slow down enough to read your blog (your posts always make me think) - has been an act of friendship that lets me know someone out there cares a lil bit.

your insightfulness and eloquence makes me wanna ride a harley.

flleenie said...

One simple act...touches so many.

LADY LUXIE said...

This seals an answer to a question I have been asking myself.

CyberKitten said...

I *love* the starfish story. I've heard a few variations and it always perks me up.

Another great post Mike.

Ellen said...

Random acts of kindness... the gift that keeps on showing everything matters.

Very well said, as always....

Biker Betty said...

It is so easy to feel overwhelmed with what goes on around us. This is a great reminder that even the little things "do" help tremendously.

Anna said...

I loved this post Mike. Thanks for sharing it.

I am a firm believer in "paying it forward".....did you see that movie? Kevin Spacey. Helen Hunt. It is good I think. You never know how one kind act can trickle down through many different people and make a difference.

dew said...

That starfish story is just how I feel about my students. I surely won't matter in any real way to most of them, but if I help even one, even once, then it's worth it.

Ben Luemly said...

Hi Mike,

Great Post. I love the ideas you pull out of this story.

I posted something on the story only the other day on about small acts can make a big difference

http://www.thenewhorizonsproject.co.uk/?p=53