Chances are you’ve heard of the Starfish Story—it’s one of those stories that have been told hundreds of different ways in the decades since it was first written. But in case it has slipped your mind, or has managed to slip by you entirely, here is my version.
The Starfish Story
Recently I was thinking about purpose. I wanted to write about what it means to have a purpose, or to do work with purpose. The starfish story came to mind almost immediately, yet I hesitated to share it. You would think the simple moral of the story would be timeless, but given the scale and complexity of our most pressing problems today, the story seemed too simple, perhaps even bordering on naïve.
The essence of the story, though, is still helpful to thinking about purpose—both individual and collective. Since so many others have adapted this story, I thought I would do so as well, asking what if the Starfish Story were to happen today?
The Starfish Saga
Far too often, that is where our story ends. Though most days, most nights, we seem to have forgotten…there is another way.
Diving a Little Deeper
I’m not sure when we got the idea that knowing about something is the same thing as doing something about it, but here we are. We are now virtual experts at staying informed about people and events and crises out of our control. Perhaps we’d benefit by shifting our focus away from factoids and fake news, and instead directing that energy toward learning about the deeper, underlying causes of our collective issues—and identifying not only our role in the problem, but what we can actually do about it.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” As of late, it seems we can’t be bothered even to hack at the branches. Instead, we’re content to hold meetings to discuss the color we’ll paint the leaves to make them look prettier and less evil-y, and what we should wear for the social media postings, so as not to clash with the leaves’ smart new look.
That, or we focus on aspects of the situation that aren’t exactly central to solving the core issue at hand.
Far more often than we’d care to realize or admit, we play a role in causing the problems we see—and are looking to others to fix.
Man is not the creature of circumstances. Circumstances are the creatures of men. ~Benjamin Disraeli
The societal problems we are collectively creating with our individual actions—or lack thereof—are the same problems we view as being of such enormous scale and incredible complexity as to be out of the reach of our little human hands: health care, social equality, wealth inequality and Main Street versus Wall Street, energy policy, environmental degradation, education, and the character and social fabric of our communities, country, and world, to mention a few.
We make choices every single day which can contribute to, or alleviate, some of our most pressing problems. These choices include where we shop or do not shop, what we buy or do not buy, what products we use or do not use, what we eat or do not eat, what we choose to consume or to conserve, where we direct our mental, emotional, and physical energy, and how we spend and invest our time and money. Our choices also include our interactions with, and treatment of, people…including the person we know best.
But then if I do not strive, who will? ~Chuang Tzu
I will act as if what I do makes a difference. ~ William James
When we look at problems and feel helpless (or angry and self-righteous, demanding action from others), good questions to ask ourselves might be: What would this problem look like if everyone did what I do? What would it look like if everyone did not do what I am not doing? How can I make changes that could alleviate or address the problem? How would things change if everyone made those changes? What would the world, my community, and the country look like if everyone made the choice I’m making?
I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; I will not refuse to do the something I can do. ~Helen Keller
Issues are complicated…that doesn’t mean the solutions have to be. Certain kinds of proposed solutions are touted over and over, and promise to fix things for us easily, without requiring any real behavioral change on our part. But we seem to wait years upon years for these complex, institutional or incremental, top-down or technological fixes. Meanwhile simple solutions sit right in front of us, waiting to be picked up and carried where they are meant to go. The simple solutions typically need only our effort, our minds, hands and hearts–and resources we already have right at our feet.
And so often, the simpler solutions seem to leave us better off, somehow.
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex…It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” ~E. F. Schumacher
Wishing on a S.T.A.R.
We’ve also tricked ourselves, somehow, into believing we are fulfilling our duty as citizens by voting. This is akin to believing that once we have purchased a vehicle, it will automatically get us where we need to go for the next few years of ownership, with no input or effort from us in terms of fuel, steering, or maintenance.
Policies are one way to address problems, and they can be effective. But policies typically encourage or discourage, or compel or ban, certain behaviors or practices. We could just do those things, if we believe they are the right things to do.
Also, like technological solutions, policies and laws can take far too long to come to fruition. And after they come to pass, then we wait months or years more for the implementation. Meanwhile, the problem is exacerbated. We waste that time waiting, when we could have been working on it ourselves all along. If we wait to get a mandate, we lose.
“There are costs and risks to a program of action, but they are far less than the long range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.” ~John F. Kennedy
Further Conclusions and Clarifications
If I’ve somehow given the impression that the characters in the starfish saga are a look out at the world, and not a look inward at myself, then I have failed. These characters—caricatures, really—are bits and pieces of all of us, and they are bits of me. I also submit to having some tendencies and distractions of my own.
Further conclusions and clarifications seem called for—for a few of the above images in particular. In this regard, I have tried, but I have failed. I’ve either been unable to give certain concepts the time and attention they deserve, or I have given them the time and space, and this already very long installment reached tens of thousands of words. Under the generous guidance of early readers, I will refrain from further elaboration here. I hope to do so in later installments.
Thank you for sticking around to read this to the end.
Cowardice asks the question, Is it safe? Expediency asks the question, Is it politic? Vanity asks the question, Is it popular? But conscience asks the question, Is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right. ~Martin Luther King, Jr
This story was first published in another format last August. In response to some very helpful feedback, I’ve made a number of changes and updates. I’ve also moved to a new site, so I decided to re-post it.