Choosing Your Starfish

Choosing Your Starfish  —by Jinny Batterson

One of the years when I taught English in China, my students were fascinated by a story about an old man, a young boy, and a beach filled with stranded starfish. Many variants of the story have appeared. The one my students were most familiar with went something like this: 

  One morning after a storm, an older man went out for his customary walk along a gently curving stretch of beach. The weather had cleared. As he looked ahead, the man could see in the distance a small figure, also walking along, sometimes bending down, then throwing something into the waves. As the older man got closer, he saw that the other person was a young boy, perhaps twelve years old. The stretch of beach nearest them was littered with stranded starfish. Once in a while, the boy leaned over, picked up a starfish, and tossed it back into the sea.

“You’ll never succeed in making a difference for every living starfish,” the old man cautioned. “There are too many of them, and they can’t live very long on the beach.”

“That’s not the point,” replied the boy as he tossed another starfish back into the waves. “I made a difference for that one.”  

I didn’t remember having heard the story before. When I recently checked online for the story’s origin, I found it had appeared in slightly different form in 1969 as part of an essay titled “Star Thrower” by philosopher Loren Eiseley. A number of charitable organizations have since taken up the image of a rescued starfish as part of their name or marketing—groups for ex-offenders, for poverty-stricken children, for survivors of childhood abuse, for injured veterans, and so on. A variation of the story’s theme has been made into a children’s film, “Sara and the Starfish.”

The fable is both challenging and reassuring to me in these unsettled times. As someone with a tendency to obsess about all the actual and potential “starfish” I may encounter, I find the story helps me maintain or regain perspective. Of course I can never save all possible starfish. It’s important, though, that I pay attention to the starfish who get stranded on “my” beach with problems that match my resources and the solution skills I’ve developed. 

Who/what is your starfish?  

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