The Starfish Story
While walking along a beach, an elderly gentleman saw someone in the distance leaning down, picking something up and throwing it into the ocean.
As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, picking up starfish one by one and tossing each one gently back into the water.
He came closer still and called out, "Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?"
The young man paused, looked up, and replied "Throwing starfish into the ocean."
The old man smiled, and said, "I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?"
To this, the young man replied, "The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don't throw them in, they'll die."
Upon hearing this, the elderly observer commented, "But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!"
The young man listened politely. Then he bent down, picked up another starfish, threw it into the back into the ocean past the breaking waves and said, "It made a difference for that one."
I have always found this story slightly disturbing. I am uncomfortable with the conclusion some people draw for the story that saving one is enough.
This has been circulated in many versions, usually with no mention of author. It is said to be paraphrased from "The Star Thrower" by Loren Eiseley, 1907 - 1977.
It reminds me of a remark that I have heard many times through the course of my career made by someone justifying an expensive, but not very effective social program: “If we only helped one [baby, child, mother, family, community, patient, client, etc.], it will have been worth it.”
I always wanted to ask the name of the one that had been helped and go talk to them, but I never did.
My mind goes to the question, “How can we clear the starfish off beach and back into the water twice a day, every day?”
Here is another version of the Starfish Story where that happens.
The Starfish Story Revised
One summer's day a little girl was walking on a long, winding beach. She came across a starfish that had been washed ashore and was now wriggling and drying up quickly in the hot sun. She reached down, gently picked up the starfish by one of its five points, and tossed it back to the sea. The little girl smiled and continued walking along the beach. But after a few steps, she found another starfish. It too was dying in the sun. No sooner had she tossed this one back when she came across another starfish. And then another one. She tossed each one back.
She reached the top of a dune and came to a sudden stop. What she saw below startled and amazed her. Stretching out in front of her were hundreds upon hundreds- possibly thousands upon thousands -of dying starfish washed up on the beach. Suddenly, she exploded into action and to toss as many starfish as possible, one by one, back to the sea.
She was so busy tossing back the starfish, that she never noticed that a person had stopped to watch her. Soon a whole crowd had gathered. They were all pointing at the little girl and laughing. "That little girl's crazy," said one. "I know," said another, "doesn't she know that every summer thousands of starfish get washed up on the beach and die? It's just the way things are." "There are so many starfish. She couldn't possibly make a difference."
The little girl was still too busy tossing back starfish to notice them. Finally, one man decided he had seen enough. He walked over to the little girl. "Little girl," he said, "there are thousands of starfish washed up on the beach, you can't possibly hope to make a difference. Why don't you give up and go play on the beach with the other children?" The little girl's smile suddenly vanished. She saw the crowd of people for the first time, and realized they had all been laughing at her. Now they had fallen silent, awaiting her answer to the man's question.
She was hot. She was tired and close to tears. She began to think that maybe he was right- maybe they were all right. She had been tossing back starfish for what seemed like hours, and a carpet of starfish still covered the beach. How could she have possibly thought she could make a difference? Her arms fell limp at her sides, and the starfish she was holding fell back to the hot sand. She started to walk away.
Suddenly she stopped, turned around, reached back down and picked up the starfish she had dropped. She swung back her arm and tossed the starfish as far as she possibly could. When it landed with a plop, she turned to her questioner, and with a huge smile on her face she said: "I made a difference to that one!"
Inspired, a little boy emerged from the crowd, picked up a starfish and sent it soaring back to the sea. "And I made a difference to that one!" he said. One by one every member of the crowd joined in sending drying starfish back to the sea, calling "I made a difference to that one" with each toss.
Soon the voices began to quiet down, and the little girl wondered if people were getting tired or discouraged. And then she looked across the beach and what she saw startled and amazed her: All the starfish were gone.There—that feels a lot better.
We are called to realize that if anything is going to be saved, it will take many of us working together. We can’t save one, we can only save all.
And that all of our intentions and actions send out ripples that affect the world in ways we cannot know in advance and may never know.