The Starfish Story

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I started a term of service as an AmeriCorps Member in September of 1994, during the first year of AmeriCorps. I served my community in support of a state-wide scholarship initiative in Indiana. President Bill Clinton swore us in via satellite from the White House our first day. I was one of 22,000 AmeriCorps Members who said the AmeriCorps pledge that morning in state houses across the country. I heard the starfish story for the first time that day. Perhaps you have come across the starfish story at some point, too.

The starfish story, adapted from Loren Eiseley’s essay The Star Thrower,  is told in many ways. Generally, it involves a young man walking on a beach onto which many starfish have been washed a shore. The young man begins gently tossing starfish back into the ocean. A older man on the beach sees the young man’s actions and questions him saying he is wasting his time. The young man replies, “I am making a difference to that one,” and continues to save starfish one by one.

The starfish story was told that morning in a spirit of enthusiasm. As AmeriCorps Members, we were beginning an experience founded on the premise that saving one matters, that (as King reflects in his “I Have A Dream” speech) there is fierce urgency in Now, and that by saving one we are saving the world. My fire to serve had been lit.

I have heard the starfish story again and again over the years at conferences, and even at a dear friend’s wedding. It’s relevance and meaning never escapes me. I now have several questions in this climate of fiscal cliffs, wall building, fear mongering, and massive public sector belt-tightening juxtaposed against great need.

  • Why do we have to stop saving starfish to think about the ocean?

I don’t think we have to choose between saving individual starfish and addressing why starfish might be washing up on the beach. Each starfish matters. Oceans matter. Yes, policy-level action is necessary if we want to have meaningful and enduring impact. More starfish are saved when an ocean is healthy. I simply don’t support the dichotomy. A thriving community works at all levels to make things better. People need to work together from a variety of angles to make positive change. The phrase “Work smarter, not harder” comes to mind. “Do more with less” is offered as well. I have often heard those arguments made when lack of resources and political will are the basis of mean spirited, short sighted decisions that ultimately don’t save starfish or oceans. Sound policy does not replace the need for effective one-on-one care and support; rather, policy should enable effective direct service.

  • Have we stopped caring about the individual starfish?

Cynics might say we have stopped caring about individual starfish altogether. An economic argument has been made. The twisted logic of trickle-down economics asserts that by protecting the most powerful, we are helping the individual who may be powerless. (As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer throughout our world, I think we see the result of that thinking.) That is not the message of the starfish story. To me, the starfish story takes a more global view. We save individual starfish because we understand our interdependence. Our interdependence is the fabric of our society. We sink or swim together. To negate the importance of the individual is to academically excuse or bureaucratically ignore need within our world. To forget the individual allows prejudice, bigotry, and hatred to build as we grow more and more apart. We must address need at both an individual and global level. Again, each starfish matters.

  • How do we create more starfish savers in our world?

My idealistic heart got involved in AmeriCorps because of an ethic of service that was instilled in me at a young age. I was given the opportunity to serve early on. I question how we can instill an ethic of service in an environment of starved resources, where people are blamed for not having the very boot straps they might need from which to pull themselves up. I believe we understand our interdependence by exposure to one another. I believe we become more compassionate by reaching outside ourselves. In essence, I believe we can learn to be people that save starfish, and in saving starfish we save ourselves. When we serve, we become more engaged with our world. When opportunities to serve are denied, distance exists. It is just that simple. Resources must be directed toward creating opportunities for service if we want to create a compassionate world where all needs are met.

At the end of the starfish story the young man explains that he made a difference to each starfish he throws back into the ocean. I think that is true. I would go one more step. He made a difference to the starfish, the ocean, and the world by his choice to reach out. When I think back to the first time I heard the starfish story, I can’t help but be hopeful. I am hopeful because the starfish story survives. I am hopeful because people still hear about our capacity to change the world through our actions. I am hopeful because I believe in the human capacity for love and compassion.

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