A little boy is walking along a beach where many starfish have been stranded by the tide, certain to perish in the hot sun. The boy observes an old man bending down to carefully pick up the starfish, throwing each one back into the ocean. The boy ponders the futility of the action, given the large amount of starfish, and the reality that the next incoming tide would likely bring them back in again. He approaches the old man. “Why are you trying to save the starfish? You can’t possibly save them all and the tide will only bring more back in. What does it matter?”
The old man slowly turned towards the boy, clasping another starfish. “You’re right. I can’t save them all... but I can save that one.” He gazed into the horizon as he threw the starfish back into the ocean. “It matters to that one.”
The effort did mean something to those he tossed back into the sea of life. We do what we can to make the world better. Our efforts and their outcomes are never perfect or guaranteed, but they are meaningful. We must take action with no attachment to the outcome, but a faith in the inherent goodness of the deed.
Most of my life I have been involved in service to our country or the community. I say this not to toot my own horn, but because much of my life and duties have been public or community service-oriented. I owe this largely to my father. He embodied pastor and author Rick Warren’s adage that “the purpose of influence is to help those who have none.”
One of my projects has been a non-profit that my wife and others founded about fifteen years ago called Estamos Unidos de Pennsylvania. The purpose of the organization is to help others help themselves through education. Projects like these plus my work at the Coroner’s office fill most of my waking hours. Even so, sometimes it feels like I am not really making much of a difference. But recently, I was reminded of the power in the meaning of the starfish story. A special starfish resurfaced in the past weeks. His name is Nelson.
Years ago, I was helping to give out scholastic scholarships to Estamos Unidos candidates. One went to a long-term heroin addict who successfully beat his addiction, had gone back to school and was now being awarded our scholarship. He told me the story of how he had been an addict for about fourteen years. He explained that first he blamed the police...then he blamed the dealer.... until finally he blamed himself—Nelson, and was able to take full responsibility for his life and actions. Through introspection of the subconscious triggers that had facilitated his addictive patterns, he broke through what tragically, many, many people cannot. He had tears in his eyes as he told me that he had just bought a home and was on his way to getting his MSW in Social Work so that he could work at a drug-free clinic.
Fast-forward many years later to last month, when I was a keynote speaker at a Central Pennsylvania Addictions Conference. During my presentation, I told the story of Nelson to an audience of about three hundred people. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a man gesturing to me, grinning and pointing at his nametag. It was Nelson. I was dumbfounded; I had not seen him in years. Nelson was at the conference representing the Spanish American Civic Association, where he works as a counselor, changing the lives of many who need a guide on the path to recovery and sobriety.
Now, whenever I feel discouraged, I think of Nelson, who is not only my “starfish” but a true star, in the community and beyond. Maybe I couldn’t reach them all, but Nelson made it and now he, in turn, walks along the beach and does what he can to make a difference. Carefully picking up each and every one of those lives, examining them with love.
Never tire of doing good because you never know how many lives you can impact, in ways you can’t begin to imagine. Surrender the outcome of your actions...have faith in the good intention behind the action itself.