Throwing back starfish

Stop me if you’ve heard this story:

A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.

She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”

The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”

This story – or rather, this particular version of the story – is fairly well known. I think we like it – especially in this version – because it contrasts “cynical old” with “innocent young” and claims that every little thing we do (no matter how seemingly hopeless) matters. But there are actually two debates in the story:

  • whether acting actually matters
  • whether what we are doing is enough.

The second insidiously slips in.

The most obvious question of the story is whether it’s worth it to act at all. The cynical old man thinks not: if you can’t save them all, why bother to save one? The innocence of the child says the value of the one is enough to act. But the question we must then ask is: is it enough to save one by one? Shouldn’t we get better at saving starfish?

Is it better to spend one’s time doing “the simple, innocent things of life” – the “most that we can” – (e.g. throwing starfish back out to sea), or is it better to grow our skills, increase our network of laborers, and get better at saving starfish? Is it better to be the innocent, simple child (“become as a child”?) or to “professionalize”?

This is not a “should we act or not” question, but rather a “good to great” question.

Another version of the story adds this to the end:

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

This adaptation speaks to the idea of inspiration leading to exponential growth. But again, note how in the story it is the “innocence” and “simplicity” of the child which inspires the old man, and in some nameless way leads to a sudden party on the beach.

I appreciate innocence and simplicity. However, big, complicated problems don’t really work this way. You can’t share the Gospel with millions, or clothe the hungry, feed the poor, care for the orphans, eradicate diseases, etc., “one by one.” Scalable strategies that reach millions require strategies that are–yes!–simple in execution yet infinitely scalable. The reality is, you can teach someone to share the Gospel or hold a Discovery Bible Study or make disciples in fairly simple ways. But getting tens of thousands of people do it is far more complex than the simple individual action itself. The higher you scale, the more complex the interplay of “simple actions.”

Throwing Starfish one by one is all well and perhaps good, and makes a difference for the one – but we must admit that in the context of all the starfish, “it’s not great.”

This is the insidious bit. “It’s not great, but it makes a difference to one,” says the innocent child.

We equate I can’t reach all the starfish in the world (physical impossibility) with I can’t reach all the starfish on this beach (logistical challenge).

We equate what is a difficult task with the larger impossibility, and we fall back to one-by-one: “what I perceive that I can do makes a difference.”

There is a middle ground between “one by one” and “you can’t save them all.” Unfortunately we can use this story as an excuse to avoid getting better and doing bigger things.

But this story gets stranger yet. The version we know is a stripped down and simplified retelling of a larger essay by Loren Eiseley, in a book published in 1979. I don’t have the original book, but I’ve found a large part of the story online. It’s an odd, tortured, near hopeless meditation on issues of death and the part we play. At the end of it, the poet becomes a “star thrower” himself–but more out of a desire for his own salvation rather than out of love for starfish:

I flung and flung again while all about us roared the insatiable waters of death, the burning sun, for it was men as well as starfish that we sought to save, a thrower who loved not man, but life.

In this story, throwing the starfish is a metaphor similar to “raging against the night.”

I wish we would stop using (or at least hesitate to use) stories like these, which have their roots in hopelessness. The best moral of the story seems to be, “What I’m doing makes a difference to at least one person, and that’s enough.” The worst lesson of the story is, “Your efforts will make no visible difference against the onrushing darkness, but are an action of some kind of mystical faith, without much certainty, thrown in a protest against death.”

Jesus calls us to follow him in obedience, and promises the whole world can hear the Good News if we do so. He tells us to “lift up our eyes to the harvest” and to “pray for more workers.” We don’t have to be alone on the beach, moving from starfish to starfish, from man to man and woman to woman and child to child in some hopeless beating of our heads against the wind. We have a promise of eternal life and Jesus’ call to make disciples of others – to make fishers of mankind, who will make fishers of mankind, who will make fishers of mankind – an exponentially exploding Kingdom-party spreading throughout the world. There is no shame or loss of innocence in thinking bigger than a single starfish saved.

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