Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Saving the Starfish

There was once a little boy who loved splashing about and foraging in rock pools. For hours on end he would carefully lift rocks and stones to reveal the miracles of nature beneath. Each little pool was a mini world and he saw himself as some sort of benevolent super being 'freeing' each creature from their 'prisons' under the rocks and boulders along the shoreline. He didn't stop to think about the worlds and lives he was upending. Yet, somewhere at the back of his mind was the knowledge that the destiny of the crabs, shrimp, cockles, mussels and other creatures were entirely in his hands. Slowly he began to become more select in the creatures he chose to help. He realised that not every crab under a rock needed to be freed from their hiding place. He began to recognise the 'safe places' for them and changed his focus from changing each creature's lot in life, to making sure there were plenty of safe places in 'his' rock pools for those he wanted to protect.


One night there was an almighty storm tossing angry waves around the familiar bays of his holiday home. With great excitement and anticipation he ran down to his favourite rock pools. A scene of devastation met his eyes. Snotgreen party streamers of seaweed, with assorted pieces of human detritus, plastic bottles, flip flops, string and tins, were intertwined with clusters of discarded fish egg sacks, jellyfish and, seemingly strewn across the whole shoreline, were hundreds, upon hundreds of starfish. The boy sank to his knees and began to sob. He had no way of saving all of the starfish. He didn't even have the ability to save any of the creatures in one of his little rock pools. The raging of the storm had cleaned most of them out, stripped of all hiding places. The storm had proved to him how useless his efforts were.

As his tears flowed he started to look around him. He began to count. Slowly an idea formed. He could reach about 10 starfish immediately next to him as he kneeled in the sand. He picked one up and threw it back into the ocean. 'Saved you.' He said as he threw it. He picked another one up, 'Saved another one.' As he walked along picking up starfish one by one, he stopped looking at the hundreds he couldn't reach, or who were beyond any help, and started focusing on each one as it lay in his hand, before he returned it to the sea. He learned a good lesson. 'I may not be able to save all the starfish, but I can save as many as I am able, one at a time.'

Sometimes we have huge mountains to climb, trying to bring justice where there is none, trying to fight against governments who seem impervious to pain, compassion, or even reasoned debates. Sometimes, we battle our own demons. We have lifetimes of trauma and pain to overcome. If we focus on the whole of the mountain, we will feel very small and very helpless.

I remember taking some 13 year olds to the Lake District to learn about climbing and abseiling. Standing at the bottom of the cliff face looking up I was so overwhelmed by the task ahead, that I chickened out. I learned something as I watched the kids make their way up where I didn't dare to go. They didn't look up or down, when encouraged by the instructor they looked at their feet planted on the cliff wall and they made progress as they moved each step upwards. Even the most frightened child managed to make it to the top and back down again. Because I let my fears overwhelm me by focusing on the whole of the task ahead of me, I was beaten by the cliff face.

There are times when it is tempting to give up trying to right wrongs and seek justice in this world. I am learning that even though I can't change the world, I can try and change the world for one person. I come across needs around me every day. I cannot meet them all on my own, but I am learning to help those immediately within my reach. I love the concept of 'pay it forward'.

As the boy walked through the carpet of dead and dying starfish he was making a pathway of hope across the shoreline. Perhaps, if more of us tried to make a difference to just one person in a small way: speaking up, educating the ignorant, supporting others who share our values and beliefs, then we will be making a start on changing the world. Don't be overcome by the mountain ahead of you, just focus on the one next step you need to take to move forward. Focus on what you can do immediately around you and you can save the starfish, one at a time.

(Credit to my friend Rachel, who keeps reminding me I don't need to take over the world, just save one starfish!)