That Damn Starfish Story!

by Ashley Bean Thornton

“While wandering a deserted beach at dawn, stagnant in my work, I saw a man in the distance bending and throwing as he walked the endless stretch toward me. As he came near, I could see that he was throwing starfish, abandoned on the sand by the tide, back into the sea. When he was close enough I asked him why he was working so hard at this strange task. He said that the sun would dry the starfish and they would die. I said to him that I thought he was foolish. there were thousands of starfish on miles and miles of beach. One man alone could never make a difference. He smiled as he picked up the next starfish. Hurling it far into the sea he said, “It makes a difference for this one.” I abandoned my writing and spent the morning throwing starfish.” ― Loren Eiseley

This is the time of year for “helping people.” The truth is I don’t really like to “help people.”  I don’t like to give money to people who are living on the street. I don’t like to serve meals to people who have so little money they can’t pay for food. I don’t like to take cans to the food pantry. I don’t like to buy Christmas presents for little kids or older people who won’t have any Christmas otherwise.  I’m glad there are kind and wonderful people who like to do it, because it needs to be done.  I do it myself sometimes because I feel like I should, but it doesn’t make me happy to do it. It makes me sad.  Sometimes it makes me embarrassed. Sometimes I feel like it embarrasses the people  I am supposedly helping, and that makes me feel worse. Sometimes I feel like the people I am supposedly helping have needed so much help for so long that they have gotten past the point of being embarrassed, and that makes me feel even worse still.

The truth is that what I really want is for more people to be “self-sufficient.”  That way I wouldn’t have to worry about helping them and how that makes me feel. I think of myself as being self-sufficient. I have a comfortable life – solid education, steady work, a place to live, food on the table, dogs, time to enjoy family and friends, a doctor when I need one, a good shot at security in old age.   I don’t have to take whatever food is available at the food pantry or the Salvation Army; I buy what I like to eat. If I am cold, I don’t have to wait for someone to donate a heater; I go buy one.   I don’t put off going to the doctor until I end up in the emergency room; I make an appointment as soon as I start feeling bad. I go to the dentist to get my teeth cleaned and to stop problems before they start. I’ve never had to go to the dentist because my tooth was actually hurting me.

I want more people to live like me. Is that middle class arrogance? Maybe. I’m tired of second-guessing myself about that. The honest truth is I want more people to have what I have, or at least for them to have enough that they don’t have to depend on my on-again, off-again, if-I-feel-like-it-today charity that never seems to be enough to make a dent in the need.

How did I get to be self-sufficient? Mainly luck.

It helps that I was born in the United States instead of somewhere in the world where the majority of people are living on $2 a day. It helps that I was born in the 20th century instead of in the 18th or 19th when even in America most people’s prospects were poor, poorer, or poorest. It helps that I was born white so that my family and I benefited from the prejudices of our society instead of being robbed by them. It helps that I was born healthy.

Lucky for me and through no effort of my own, my parents had good paying jobs. They worked hard at those jobs. They fed me, took care of me and paid for me to go to college. They even bought me my first two cars and put a down payment on my third. I went to good public schools where I evidently learned everything I needed to learn to succeed in college and later in a job. I had a whole raft of Girl Scout Leaders, Sunday school teachers, youth ministers, camp counselors, family friends, aunts and uncles, etc. etc. who taught me all kinds of useful things including the rules (hidden and overt) for fitting in and “making it” in middle-class society.

Basically all I have had to do to attain self-sufficiency has been to not screw up too badly. Sure, I had to study and go to class. Sure, I had to get a job when I graduated. I had to/have to work. I have to save some money. I am responsible for making it from third base to home plate on my own, but the odds are definitely in my favor.

I want us to build a community where more people are self-sufficient.

How do we do that? What can I do? Well, in honor of Thanksgiving, I think I can start by recognizing how lucky I am. I can start by being honest with myself and others that what I have earned “on my own” is the tip of the iceberg compared to how much was given to me through the sheer luck of birth. I can also point out to whoever is interested that being the beneficiary of all that dumb luck didn’t destroy my motivation and make me more dependent or lazy. In fact, quite the opposite, it gave me energy, knowledge, skills, self-confidence, opportunities to exercise my creativity, and at least some spark of belief that what I do makes a difference.

I’m thankful for those gifts of my lucky life. Am I thankful enough to use them to help build systems that make it more likely that more people will have more of that kind of luck? I hope so. But, working at that level is hard, and complicated, and controversial. I have my opinions about what I think we should do, but plenty of people disagree with me. Some even believe, with a passion equal to my own, that the things I want to do will make the situation worse instead of better. Maybe they are right, or at least partly right. It would take some significant work to find out. Do I want systemic change badly enough that I am willing to slog through the hard, frustrating work of making it happen?

I don’t really like taking cans to the food pantry.  I don’t really like that we keep on needing to take so many cans to the food pantry.  But taking cans to the food pantry doesn’t cause any arguments. In fact, people thank me when I do it, and it doesn’t cost much, and it doesn’t take much time…and like the man in the starfish story says, “It makes a difference to this one.”


me and omarThis Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, the Manager of the www.www.actlocallywaco.org website and the editor of the Friday Update newsletter. The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.

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