What About Starfish Savers and Fishing Instructors?
In the process of considering the possibility of change on a deeper level, let’s consider two well-known analogies for making a difference in the world.
The first analogy presents a scene in which a boy is walking down a beach, picking up starfish that have washed ashore, and throwing them back into the ocean. A man who sees him remarks on the futility of the rescue operation because there are so many starfish on that beach, as well as many other beaches, and the scene is repeated day after day. “You can’t possibly make a difference,” says the man. Tossing back another starfish, the boy replies, “I made a big difference to that one.”
This story addresses several issues. On the one hand, it illustrates the magnitude of many problems, a reality that can easily overwhelm us and discourage us from attempting to do anything. At the same time, it holds before us the optimism of youth that can reinvigorate those of us who have grown cynical.
Primarily, however, the story reminds us of the power of small acts of kindness that may prove anything but small to their recipients. Jesus speaks of the value of “even a cup of cold water” given to a thirsty disciple (Matthew 10:42). Especially in times of crisis and immediate need, we should not overlook the opportunity to help, even as we are striving to bring about more substantive change.
The second analogy reminds us of the superiority of teaching a person to fish over giving a person a fish. This picture reflects some fundamental aspects of deeper change. As a proverbial statement, however, it compresses a large truth into a small package.
In unpacking that proverb, we first note that people may need to receive short-term assistance before they are in a position to learn how to fend for themselves. Furthermore, “teach a person to fish” makes the alternative to a handout sound simple, but the path to developing self-sustaining skills is frequently long and difficult. Hunger, for example, may represent only a single symptom of a complex set of problems extending beyond the hungry person’s lack of skills.
As long as we avoid a simplistic application of the fishing analogy, however, it can point us in a helpful direction.
Next: First Do No Harm