The little things we do…add up
By: Maria Beider
As an old man walked the beach at dawn, he noticed a young boy picking up starfish and putting them into the sea. He asked the boy why he was doing this. The boy answered that the stranded starfish would die if left until the morning sun. “But the beach goes on for miles and there are thousands of starfish,” countered the old man. “How can your efforts make any difference?” The young boy looked at the starfish in his hand and placed it safely into the waves. “It makes a difference to this one,” he said.
Loren Eisley, an American anthropologist
The story of the little boy and the starfish has always held a special place in my heart and has become a legacy ‘heirloom’ passed down and along my family. My uncle, Professor David Baum, a dedicated paediatrician, told the story many times over the years until it became his signature story.
When I was chosen to be the speaker at my Masters graduation ceremony a few years ago, it was obvious to me that the starfish story would make a guest appearance. My message was clear. Social work is not about changing people. The goal is to be there as our clients make incremental, but significant steps forward. Social work is also not about numbers. It is all about helping the individual. We cannot expect to change the whole world, but we can help individuals one at a time.
At some stage, the late Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, ztz’l, met my uncle and was enchanted by his philosophy of life and, in turn, perpetuated the starfish story in my uncle’s name. In the Chief Rabbi’s book, To Heal a Fractured World, he remembers my uncle fondly, citing the starfish story and then he develops the idea by proceeding to offer his own interpretation, which he describes as a part of Jewish ethics of responsibility: “We do it one day at a time, one person at a time, one act at a time. A single life, said the Sages, is like a whole universe. Save a life and you save a world. Change a life and you begin to change the world.”
I have always carried this belief with me. Every one of us can do this and, what is more, it is the small acts that count.
Once my husband attended a funeral in Jerusalem where the following story was shared during the eulogy, illustrating this very point. Every Shabbos morning on his way to shul, the Bayit Vegan-based rabbi (whose funeral this was) used to walk passed an elderly Russian couple sitting on a bench. Every time, he would greet them with a warm smile and wish them, “Shabbat shalom.” This went on for many years. One Shabbos morning as he approached, he saw that the lady was sitting alone. He asked her where her husband was. She replied that he had been taken very suddenly the week before. She then explained that she had wanted the rabbi to know that his weekly greeting and warmth had been the highlight of her husband’s week. This tender story echoes the poignant message of the Chief Rabbi.
The legacy of the little boy and the starfish continued in my own life as follows. In November 2020, our dear Chief Rabbi Sacks passed away. Jews and non-Jews alike were shocked and deeply mourned the immense loss of this great man, described as a ‘prince of G-d’. I picked up his book, which for some reason I had spontaneously thrown into the top of my suitcase en route to the Southern hemisphere. Not only was it a comfort to me to have it readily available and be able to drink from the fountain of his wisdom, but I was reminded of his connection to my family legacy.
At the same time, I was involved in a zoom personal development course for therapists whose aim was to explore and deepen our own internal processes. Each week, we would be given a different exercise which would stretch us in some way. That particular week, as our group facilitator started to read the starfish story, my eyes welled up with tears. Why did I need to hear this story again? The timing was surreal and, yet, I felt complacent because I knew the ending. It was her punchline that turned the story upside down, giving me vertigo and making my hairs stand on end: “So who was your starfish thrower? Who threw you back into the sea?”
I was quite literally speechless. Yes, I had been living my life according to this principle of making a difference to one starfish at a time, but never had I contemplated the fact that I too was a vulnerable starfish, at one point in my journey, who had been picked up and thrown back into the waves.
I mulled this over and did not take long to recognise the starfish throwers in my own story. How often do we take the time to appreciate the first-grade teacher who noticed us and made us feel like a star or the rabbi who pushed to get us into the yeshiva that we wanted?
There were a few people along the way who made me feel special, but there were one or two that really stood out at a critical time in my life and, with the encouragement of my supervisor and the group, I decided it was time to share with my starfish throwers and thank them.
I contacted two mentors of mine and showed my appreciation for all that they had done for me when I was a confused, young adult – seeing me, believing in me, when I certainly did not, giving me confidence and encouragement. The result of my sharing and making myself vulnerable made a very powerful impact.
One mentor in question was so moved by my openness and outpouring of gratitude that he decided to make this metaphorical starfish story tangible, memorable, and real in a way that only he knew how. In a moment of spontaneity, he ordered me a beautiful fish tank with real tropical fish, adorned with stone starfish, which he organised with tremendous effort to have delivered to my home in South Africa! I was both amused and touched by this quirky, yet profound gesture.
However, this fish tank is not just a cute and generous gift. It is a testament for me of how those small acts can make a big difference and how giving creates a ripple effect in the world.
Some of us know what it is like to have been there, all washed up and helpless, and it is wonderful if we can show gratitude to our starfish throwers. One cannot underestimate the power of gratitude.
So now it is my turn. Since receiving this gift, I have felt an obligation to pass on this important message of communal responsibility shared by my uncle, Rabbi Sacks, and by my mentors. For me, the legacy of giving it forward, one person at a time, will go on and on creating more ripples.
I received vital help when I needed it and now that I feel empowered and my starfish muscles are strong, it is my privilege to help other stranded starfish get back to sea.
We all have times in our lives when we need to be carried on another’s wings or given a helping hand. Sometimes it is hard for us to see that we are the stranded ones and drying up on the beach. Sometimes it is hard to ask for the help to get back to where we need to be. But we must remember that we are not divided into helpful starfish throwers and helpless starfish. We take turns in life. There is a time to help and a time to be helped. If you are feeling stuck, you must reach out and accept help from others, knowing that the time will come when you will be able to pay it forward to another. Having this awareness will make the receiving part easier.
If you are doing nicely, think of the small kind acts that you can do that will impact those around you – a smile, a thank you, a word of encouragement, a check-in, a gift, or a compliment. One last thought, if we all make a pre-emptive effort to look out for our students, workers, neighbours, patients, friends, and family, then there will be less starfish stranded on the beach at dawn.