To us, being a starfish sounds scary. We who bathe in filtered tap water, and gag if we swallow water from the sea, cannot imagine being surrounded in saltwater. We who watch reruns of Jaws, and news clips, and viral videos, cannot imagine living in the presence of sharks, or having them as neighbors. We imagine that being picked up and carried to a built bathtub full of filtered water, free of salt and sharks, safe and sound, would be anyone’s dream.
But we do not know—or have long forgotten—the feel of the waves in and around us, the slow pull of the current, the immensity of the sea. We have forgotten the feeling of our friends and families around us, day and night. We have forgotten what it is like to have food come not from a package but from the earth, or the sea, or a shell, and what it feels like to use our own arms and legs to bring it to our mouths and stomachs.
We can’t imagine a world without clocks ticking synchronized seconds, let alone hours, but instead living with the rhythm of the earth and sea and sky. We can no longer fathom what it feels like to move with our own bodies and the current to get where we need to be. We can’t imagine a world without constant distraction, being bombarded with news and factoids, and endless to-do’s and to-get’s, from trendy clothes to the tile backsplash.
Perhaps most of all we have forgotten the feeling of peace of being one with the world, of it and not apart from it, at the mercy of nature, but also immersed in its life and movement, awash with its beauty and grace.
Many of us, in our mission to help, see ourselves as saviors, and necessarily as superior. Perhaps that would be okay, if the belief in superiority remained there in our minds, where it began. But the belief in our status as saviors expands to the surroundings, and can leave those who we intended to help even worse off than where they started—out of their element, removed from the life and world they know and love, and dependent on people who have no right to hold those strings.
We have to recognize that though we may seem to know more, we do not necessarily know better. More and more evidence, in fact, is pointing to the contrary. And though our lives may seem to have much more of so much—more activity, more things, more clocks and coordination, more engines and noise, more machinery and meetings, more data and PowerPoint decks—we have traded much of that more for less of what we love, and less of real life.
But as we sit soaking in our bathtubs, looking at the disaster on the beach, we are certain that we know better, and what is good for them, and how it would be better for the starfish to live just like us.
Starfish do not belong dried up on a beach, but they also do not belong in a bathtub. Starfish are at home in the sea.
There are tradeoffs in life, and in living. Perhaps we are too quick to assume that we have made all the right ones, when we are realizing more and more where things are going wrong.
We have made the tradeoffs we’ve made, protecting ourselves from the scariness of sharks, and the struggles of storms, selecting the security and sterility of our bathtubs at the sacrifice of the movement and immensity of the sea. This does not mean that we need to bring the rest of the world along with us, nor look down on those who want to submerse themselves and swim, and who would wither away sitting still and soaking in salt-free surroundings that are as devoid of life as they are of danger and death.
Here we sit in our saltless tap water, safe and secure in the confines of our clean, straight white walls. And what we are so quick to see as stupidity or savagery might indeed simply be the heart heeding the call to the sea, to brave the sharks and risk the storms, for the chance to taste the salt and swim.
We are certain in our superiority, so sheltered from the stirrings of any storm. But as we lay here, smug and soaking, we rarely think about the water we sit in. While the sea is ceaseless, and steady, and self-renewing, the bathtub has to be refilled regularly, else it grow stagnant. We so rarely think about how, like the hand that feeds us, the hand that works the faucet is not our own.
Perhaps we do realize it, after all. Perhaps this explains some of our unsettled feelings, as settled as we are. Perhaps this partially explains our stress, our addictions and anxiety, our inability to sleep, and our restless urge to climb. As we lay safe and still, soaking, staring at the ceiling, we know that the hand that feeds us and turns the faucet can just as easily, at any moment, pull the plug on the drain.
The phrase ‘immensity of the sea’ is not mine, but from Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
The image in the beginning of this post is an excerpt from a satirical version of The Starfish Story. This is an excerpt from a longer essay.
Starfish can’t actually survive in tap water. They need the salt around them to keep the salts within them in balance. If starfish are left in tap water long enough, their cells take in more and more water, become unstable, and eventually, explode.
This is an excerpt from a longer essay and project.