What makes a story stay with us forever?
What frequency is it that resonates with those innermost heartstrings for each of us?
These stories shape our lives and seem to reflect back our innermost selves, or the higher Selves we all strive to be. I believe that the “sticky stories” we come across highlight core principles and values that we may not have even realized have such central places in our lives.
I sometimes get upset with “the world” in the sense that I feel powerless to shape it into a more actively compassionate place. I want to fix everything, to heal every invisible wound, to bring kindness, happiness, and peace front and center. I do what I can, but it sometimes feels like my work (and I) could never be enough to matter, that it’s hopeless, that I’m shouting into the void.
When I hit that level of frustration that comes dangerously close to despair, I return to one of the “stickiest” stories I’ve ever heard. Here it is in my own words:
An old man was taking his usual early morning stroll along the beach. There had been a great storm the night before, and the sand was dotted heavily with starfish and shells washed ashore by the surge.
As the man walked on, he saw someone in the distance. He squinted as the other figure bent down, straightened, and made a throwing gesture. Skipping stones, perhaps? No, his arm was all wrong for that.
The old man drew closer to the stranger, a young man, who waved cheerily and shouted hello.
“Hello!” replied the old man. “What are you doing?”
“I’m throwing starfish back into the ocean. The storm washed them onto the beach, and when the sun comes up, if they’re not back in the water, they’ll dry out and die.”
The old man smiled and patted the other man’s shoulder.
“Son, that’s nice, but there are miles of beach here and thousands of starfish. There will be other beaches, other storms, other starfish. You can’t save them all.”
“I know,” said the younger man. He bent down and picked up another starfish.
“Then why?” asked the older gent. “You’re wasting your time. What you’re doing doesn’t matter!”
The young man held the old man’s gaze as he tossed the starfish into the water.
“It mattered to that one.”
Every time I feel too insignificant to make a difference in the face of an aching world, I think about this story. I wonder if the old man then bent down and started throwing starfish into the water too. I’d like to believe he did. Maybe they met others, and some of them pitched in also. Maybe they set up an online campaign and got Starfish Savers going worldwide.
One person can change the world. But we don’t have to look that far to see the difference we make.
Every life we enrich, every person we help along the way, is a beautiful starfish.
My dad once helped rush strangers (a man and his pregnant wife) to the hospital in the middle of the night. She was bleeding and their vehicle had broken down. Later that year, we received a Christmas card with a photo of their healthy newborn twins on it. It mattered to that one.
If my choir teacher were alive today, the one who kept me from spinning out so long ago, I would love to present him with this story, a photo of my happy self with my beautiful children, and the words, “It mattered to that one.”
It always matters. Save that starfish.