February 7, 2012

It Makes a Difference to the Starfish…



     While walking along a deserted beach one day a man (I’ll call him Bob) noticed another man in the distance. As he walked closer, he noticed that the man (I’ll call him Jim) kept bending down, picking something up, and throwing it into the ocean water. At first, Bob thought Jim was skipping stones. Bob watched as Jim did this time after time.

     Bob, puzzled, approached Jim and said Good evening, friend, I was wondering what you are doing.

     “I’m throwing these starfish back into the ocean. You see, it’s low tide right now, and many starfish were washed onto the shore. If I don’t throw them back into the sea, they’ll die from lack of oxygen.”

     “I understand,” Bob replied. “But there must be thousands of starfish on this beach. You can’t possibly get to all of them. There are simply too many. What difference does it make that you are throwing these starfish back into the ocean?”

     Jim didn’t answer, He simply bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the ocean.

     Then he looked at Bob and quietly said It made a difference to that one.


     I often hear people say that the world is so messed up, the problems so severe, that what little they do cannot make a difference.

     I disagree!

     A number of years ago I facilitated a family support group for troubled people in the local community. One woman (I’ll call her Sue) from another state stayed with us for a while, soaking up the therapeutic atmosphere. During her time with us she was an active participant in the group.

     One day a new member arrived (I’ll call her Mary). I began my litany on abuse and how we functioned. Suddenly Sue interrupted me.

     “Let me,” she said.

     I sat back and listened to Sue tell Mary the details.

     When Sue returned to her home state she took valuable lessons with her on how to break the cycle of abuse. From time to time I hear from her—she being one person—and I’m told about how she’s shared these lessons with someone who needed to hear the message.

     The “starfish” I threw back into society was only one person. But what she learned has expanded in a ripple effect.


     This month I saw an op-ed headline: Bailing an ocean with a thimble, written by George F. Will*. In it, he related the story of Sugar Bear, a fatherless person who grew up mostly on the streets and who had a repeated jail record. During one of his releases, saw his son being taken into the jail.

     At the risk of plagerism, Will’s column continues:

In 1965, immediately after the Watts riots that announced to a largely oblivious nation the volatility of some pockets of social regression, a UCLA undergraduate, Keith Phillips, moved into this devastated section of the city of angels. Now 65, Phillips is the reason why World Impact, his creation, is a presence in 13 of America’s most troubled cities, such as Newark and East St. Louis. Its focus is on fatherlessness and the social pathologies that flow from it.

This is the preoccupation of Ken Canfield, 58, a Kansas State Ph.D. who, until five years ago, headed the National Center for Fathering in Kansas City. He then moved here to help Pepperdine University develop a Center for the Family and now labors with World Impact living among the city’s most troubled people.

Canfield acquainted Sugar Bear with Psalm 68, which speaks of God as “father of the fatherless” who “setteth the solitary in families.” For people like Sugar Bear, people with holes in their souls never filled by the love of fathers, Canfield says religion offers the “spiritualization of fatherhood”:

“If you don’t have the calm self-respect that a father gives, your passions go sideways. For a number of men, their passions become sexualized as they look for comfort and affirmation of their manhood.”

On a recent day, Sugar Bear, a burly, cheerful survivor, was wearing a windbreaker bearing the logo of the Union Rescue Mission. He works there, helping provide services to, among others, a small portion of LA County’s 50,000 homeless, 30 percent of whom are under 35.

     Will questions whether Phillips, Canfield, and Sugar bear are bailing an ocean with a thimble.

     Were Jim, the Family Support Program and Sue bailing an ocean with a thimble?

     I think not. Each person that the starfish, Sue, and Sugar Bear touch (each representing a bucket bailed from the ocean) creates unknown and uncountable ripples throughout their society, ripples that extend far beyond their meager acts. And, it mattered for the starfish, Sue, and Sugar Bear.

     As Will ends his editorial: these people exemplify a very American approach to social regeneration.



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