The Starfish Parable

by Brian Dyck

Brian Dyck (MCC Photo/Alison Ralph)

Periodically in my work, when someone wonders about the overwhelming nature of the forced displacement problem and the seeming futility of our efforts, someone will tell the starfish parable. It is adapted from an essay by Loren Eiseley called “The Star Thrower.” While that parable is an effort to give comfort, I think it can inadvertently silence valid criticism of our efforts.

As I have considered this, I have developed my own version of the starfish parable which starts with the traditional version but carries on adding other layers.

I must begin by saying I know next to nothing about the lives of starfish, their environment or what makes them thrive or die. I hope that if you do know something about that, my ignorance will not distract you from my point.

One day, while walking on a beach, a man saw a little boy throwing starfish back in the water. The man walked up to the boy and said, “Boy, you are wasting your time. Can’t you see there are too many starfish for you to help them all? What you are doing doesn’t matter.”

The boy threw another starfish into the ocean, looked at the man and said, “I made a difference for that one.”

That is usually where the story ends. However, I tried to imagine a different ending.

The man walked further down the beach and saw a little girl also throwing beached starfish back into the ocean. He told her too that what she was doing was pointless in the grand scheme of things and she as well told him that it made a difference for the ones she helped. The man went on, unconvinced by what he considered their naïve optimism.

The next day the boy went to the beach again and once again started throwing starfish back in. As he was doing that, he thought to himself, “Maybe that man was right.  Maybe there isn’t much of a point to this.” That thought bothered him for a while, but eventually he stopped throwing starfish back into the water and started playing in the sand. In time he forgot about the starfish and didn’t really notice them anymore.

The girl also went to the beach the next day and also noticed many freshly washed up starfish on the beach. At first, she too was overwhelmed by the sight, but as she looked at it, she began to wonder, “Where are they coming from and why are they washing up on the beach?” She began to look for patterns of where they were washing up on the beach. Eventually she decided to leave the beach and go to the library to read all she could about starfish and their environment. All summer she returned to the beach to throw starfish back into the water, but she also thought about how this was all happening. She began to notice things about the ocean and other sea creatures that were in the shallows and on the beach.

That summer began a lifelong passion for learning about the ocean, the environment and more importantly what humanity was doing to destroy that environment. As she grew and studied, she became a world-renown oceanographer and would travel all over the world, advocating to change policies about pollution, overfishing and other issues that harmed the ocean and the sea creatures that she cared so much about. It was hard work and progress was slow. Sometimes she felt like giving up, but over time she was able to make a difference in policies in some places.

Years later, when the boy who had been throwing starfish back into the sea was a grown man, he was walking on the beach and he saw children throwing starfish back into the sea. He looked at them wistfully and with melancholy in his voice and said, “I used to do that too. I found it didn’t make a difference,” and he walked off.

That same day, the girl who had become an oceanographer was walking on the same beach and she saw those same children throwing starfish into the sea, just like she had many years ago. She walked up to them and said, “Let me help you. And while we are doing that, let me tell you about starfish and the beautiful place they live in.”

Photo credit: Brian Dyck

There are two lessons I want to draw from this parable. First: it can be demoralizing to tell someone what they are doing is pointless. It can stifle compassion and empathy which is needed if we are to persevere in our work. We need to be careful how we engage with people when they are doing something they are passionate about.

The second point is this: sometimes the small acts that we do to make a difference can distract us from dealing with the bigger problems that are at the root of the problem we are trying to address. Looking at the big picture can get extremely complicated and paralyze us from acting at all. However, it is important to periodically step back and look at the whole ocean and not just the starfish in our hand.

Brian Dyck is National Migration and Resettlement Program Coordinator for MCC Canada.

To take a step back and look at the whole ocean, and see how you can get involved through advocacy actions, browse the Ottawa Office website here.

See other recent blog posts by Brian Dyck: From Crisis to Opportunity: Global Pathways for Refugee Resettlement, How do we respond to the stranger at our gate? and Refugee Resettlement: Where do we go from here?

6 Thoughts

    1. Thanks Hilda. It is a story that I have thought about for a long time and there was always something that bothered me about it. We do need to stop from time to time and ask ourselves if what we do makes a different.

  1. Brian, I love your revised/extended version of this parable. Thanks for thinking just a little further and for putting your thoughts out there for us to consider. I’m sure I’ll be sharing it with students in the future. The girl in the story reminded me of my daughter, so I simply had to forward the link to her.

    1. Thanks Eric, I’m glad you found it helpful. It’s great to have an inquisitive children. One of the things I wanted to do in this story is warn that we can crush that inquisitiveness with the way that we respond to people.

  2. Thanks for your version of the parable, Brian. This needs to be shared. I spoke about refugees is our church last Sunday. I wish I had read your parable before that. Alas I only read it today.

  3. Thanks Eric. I am glad you find this useful. I am also glad you spoke about refugees at your church. Let us know if we can help.

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