By: Chris Warren.
There is a well known story by American author Loren Eiseley (1907-1977) that goes something like this:
“There was an old man who would take a walk on the beach every morning before he began his work. One day, he was walking after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions. He noticed a small boy approaching. As the boy walked closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The boy came closer and the man called out, ‘Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?’ The young boy paused, looked up, and replied ‘Throwing starfish into the ocean. The storm has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,’ the youth replied. ‘They will die, unless I throw them back into the water.’ The old man replied, ‘But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.’ The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, ‘It made a difference to that one!’” (adapted from The Star Thrower, 1969, 1977).
Numerous versions of this story are floating around out there, but the lesson is the same: Very few of us will change the world for everyone, but one person can make a difference to someone, and to that someone it’s a very big deal.
In 1991 Cathy was a middle aged working mom with four kids who earned a modest living as a call center service rep at a large company. A few blocks up the street from her office was a well worn and austere apartment building used for low income senior housing. Owned & operated by a local faith-based charity that clearly had more good intentions than money, nobody would choose to live there unless the alternative was a cardboard box by the railroad tracks.
One day Cathy recruited a coworker to help her deliver a chair to a friend over lunch break. They pulled up to the senior housing building in Cathy’s beat up old minivan with a large padded recliner chair crammed in the back. The coworker was a strong, young twenty-something male specifically chosen to provide the muscle needed to lug the heavy piece up several floors to an apartment door in a dark hallway.
A weak old lady answered the door and warmly hugged and greeted Cathy. As they entered, the lady candidly mentioned, “I think I had a little accident in the bed.” There is no delicate way to describe it: Wall to wall, floor to ceiling , the place smelled, literally, like shit. The young guy set the chair near the window; it looked out of place as the only decent piece of furniture in the entire apartment. He waited uncomfortably while Cathy helped the lady change in the other room and hoped they didn’t know that he knew about the wretched, disgusting funk in the air. His courtesy of feigning ignorance was pointless since there was no possible way not to notice the “accident.” There was some idle chit-chat, and the pair of coworkers headed for the door. On the way out, Cathy tells the old lady, “I hope you like your chair. I’ll come by later and finish cleaning up. You’ll be ok till then.”
On the short trip back to the office, Cathy explained to the visibly puzzled young man that she met the old woman months back through a random encounter at the store and simply “adopted” her. At the end of the workday, Cathy returned to the dumpy apartment to take care of her friend; he went to his clean, odor-free home in a nice neighborhood.
Star-throwers are hard to spot because they deliberately avoid being noticed. Like mysterious little spirits, they quietly go about performing good deeds. The boy on the beach didn’t say anything about what he was doing until someone asked, and Cathy did not disclose the true purpose of the lunch hour chair-moving mission to her young helper until the topic could no longer be avoided.
Nearly everyone at some point in their life has helped others. Lots of people are habitually helpful, but not everyone is a star-thrower. True star-throwers go beyond doing something nice once in a while. They instinctively see stars that others miss. In a world that is so difficult for so many, stars should be easy to find like the beach in Eiseley’s parable. But in the real world they can and often do hide in plain sight. People in need may mask their difficulties, be too embarrassed to ask for help, or be in denial that they have a problem. More likely, many of us don’t want to notice the stars all around.
Loren Eiseley teaches that the need is far greater than one person can handle and admonishes lazy bystanders through the character of the old man. Sooner or later the boy must stop throwing starfish. He feels sorrow for all those he did not get to and guilt for leaving them behind but knows that at least some of them are safely back in the water. Compare that to the attitude of the old man, who not only saw no higher purpose in throwing starfish to begin with but also has the nerve to tell the boy that it’s better to let them all die than to save just a few.! Uncharitable people often use this twisted logic to explain away their lack of compassion. It’s easy to say the job is too big and assuage one’s guilt for not even trying than to give one’s best effort and know it would have mattered to someone. Mocking others for doing what you are too unmotivated to take on yourself is an old bit.
When I agreed to help move the chair, it never entered my mind that doing an ordinary favor was going to result a lesson that I would remember for years and years. I later lost contact with Cathy but her sense of humanity and kindness and showing love to God by showing love to others will never leave me. There are so many stars. Like the boy on the beach, Cathy knows she will never save all of them. The apartment building is still there. I seriously doubt the old lady is alive. She was in her late 70s or early 80s at the time. This incident happened twenty three years ago. Either by luck or divine intent two souls were both in the right place at the right time and again proved the old man wrong. A Star-Thrower made a difference to a poor, sick, elderly lady who was tossed back into the life giving sea so she would not whither and die on a beach.