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.