Early one morning, goes the story, an old man went for a walk along a beach. Soon he spotted someone in the distance who seemed to be picking stuff up and throwing it into the sea. The person did it again and again. As the old man got close enough, he saw what was happening. It was a young man, and he was picking up starfish. There were thousands and thousands of them. They must have been pulled up by an immense tide and stranded on the beach…..
When the old man got close enough, he asked the young man what he was doing.
“I’m throwing the starfish back into the sea,” he replied. “The tide is going out and the sun is coming up. Soon it will be too hot on the sand and the starfish will dry out and die.”
The old man threw his head back and laughed, “But the beach goes on for miles and miles. There are, like, a million starfish out here. You will never be able to make a difference!”
The young man slowly picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea. As it splashed into the cool water, he turned to the old man and said, “I made a difference to that one.”
That is the story, and what I want to know is: why the young man did what he did. Why, when he was walking the beach and saw all the starfish, he stopped, he picked up the few he could, and threw them back in.
I call that leadership. It’s leadership in the most essential sense of taking an active role in caring for something. It’s the opposite of doing nothing. It’s the opposite of seeing something that needs doing but you don’t care or you don’t care anymore, and you just walk on by.
But with leadership, you stop, and in the moment you do the caring thing you can do. It’s about service. And I love how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke of it. He said, “If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. By giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”
Thank you, Dr. King. This is important, what we are talking about today. Having hearts full of grace and souls generated by love. God knows we are all busy. But for there to be more moments for you and for me of service—of leadership—where the heart is full of grace and the soul is moved by love: it definitely helps make life more worth living.
Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.
But the reality is that many people do not serve. Thousands of starfish stranded on a beach surround them, and they just walk on by.
By now I hope you see I am using the word “starfish” symbolically. It symbolizes any and all kinds of opportunities to bring more aliveness and justice and value to life. Things you do that make you feel like you belong or that another person belongs. Efforts by which you improve your little corner of the universe. Creative endeavors. Family. Love. Building a lasting legacy you’ll leave behind. Maybe even helping to build a certain Unitarian Universalist church located in a picturesque place called Rocky River, Ohio, that feeds so many spirits.
That’s what I mean when I say “starfish.”
There are so many starfish scattered on the beach.
But too many people don’t care. Or they don’t care anymore.
We must understand. We must look closer at why the opportunity for greatness is lost by so many.
One reason why could be related to the size of the problem one is facing. It seems too big. It seems totally beyond any single person’s ability to solve. The old man in the story drives it home. “You will never be able to make a difference!” he says, as he acknowledges how the beach runs on for miles and how there’s, like, a million starfish to save.
How many of you have ever faced problems like this? And, because you knew that you yourself would never be able to solve it, you just walked on by—or acted like the problem didn’t exist, or didn’t change behaviors that might help a little if not a lot?
How about the starfish known as American democracy, with your little contribution being your single vote?
How about the starfish known as climate change, with your little contribution being (for example) using your own reusable grocery bags at the store so that you don’t have to use the throw-away plastic ones they give you?
How about the starfish known as police violence against Black people like Tyre Nicholas in Memphis! From this recent egregious example it’s only confirmed: that it doesn’t matter what the race of police officers might be. There is something in policing that unleashes disproportionate harm on Blacks. Racism is there. All this–and your little contribution is the work you do on yourself to bring awareness to your unconscious racial biases and neutralize them, so that you help make your little corner of the world less violent for people of color.
But again–all are little contributions to a monster of Godzilla proportions!
“You will never be able to make a difference!” the old man cries out, and he is not just a figure in a story. He’s in our heads. Who is he? How did he get there? And why might his laughter cause us to walk on by?
I honestly think it’s because, somehow, we carry the burden of expecting Godhood out of ourselves. What else explains the illogical line of reasoning that goes, If we can’t save absolutely every starfish, then we are horrible and should be ashamed and nothing we actually do will count? Humans who are clear about their identities get it. To be human is to be humble, to be limited, to be capable of something and not everything. But, amazingly enough, humans can forget this, get confused about this, and so we end up judging ourselves as if we were under-functioning, irresponsible Gods!
How does such an impossible, incomprehensible burden come upon us?
I was reading M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled the other day, and at one point he says, “Many people are either unwilling or unable to suffer the pain of giving up the outgrown which needs to be forsaken. Consequently they cling, often forever, to their old patterns of thinking and behaving, thus failing to negotiate any crisis, to truly grow up, and to experience the joyful sense of rebirth that accompanies the successful transition into greater maturity.” M. Scott Peck continues: “Although an entire book could be written about each one, let me simply list, roughly in order of their occurrence, some of the major conditions, desires and attitudes that must be given up in the course of a wholly successful evolving lifetime:
- The state of infancy, in which no external demands need be responded to
- The fantasy of omnipotence”
Stop right there! There’s twelve more items on the list, but stop right there. The fantasy of omnipotence. A fantasy that takes a person to one of the oldest layers of the personality, which needs to be outgrown and forsaken, but doing that is painful.
The old man in the story seems not to have accomplished it, but the young man has. The young man, who responds to the old man’s laughter by picking up another starfish and throwing it into the sea and saying, “I made a difference to that one” and feeling good enough about that. Feeling ok about being human. Feeling like it’s enough.
It turns out that the question, Who am I?, and answering it with rationality, maturity, and compassion—I am a human being, not a God—is key to our caring. It is key to doing the things one can do and bringing the leadership one can bring.
But there are a few more nuggets to tease out of the star thrower story, and with this next one, I want you to imagine the sort of person who walks past all the starfish not because they don’t care but because they don’t care any more. A moment ago, I suggested that the old man in the story with his cynical laughter had not given up the fantasy of omnipotence. But maybe he had. Maybe he does what he does for altogether different reasons. Maybe, when he himself was young, he had done his own share of starfish throwing but at some point got burned out, or maybe just burned.
Lots of ways this can happen.
Let’s call him Loren, so we don’t confuse him with the young man in the story. When Loren stepped up to volunteer, he was completely clear about his identity as an imperfect human being, but that didn’t stop others from putting the burden of Godhood on him. Loren could have had a week when he accomplished 10 impossible things but when he didn’t get around to that 11th impossible thing, he got zapped, he got criticized.
Not perfect enough.
Perfectionism will burn anyone out, to the tune that the next time they see a starfish, they just walk on by. Which Loren, when he got older, did.
Let me hasten to say that I am fervently committed to excellence, but of the kind that incorporates flaws and mistakes as honored parts of the process. Perfectionism is the obstacle to growth, not mistakes. Perfectionism is the obstacle, not simple satisfaction with “good enough.” Perfectionism freezes us up, as individuals and institutions. We’re saying oops constantly. We’re kicking cans down the road, staying away from the really hard problems that are inevitably going to expose our weaknesses and growing edges but will also—if we stick with them—bring the greatest transformations and rewards.
Perfectionism might have burned Loren out, and led to his cynicism as an old man.
Or, maybe this happened: Loren was asked to volunteer, but the job he ended up getting ran contrary to his leadership style, and folks weren’t savvy enough to understand that this is bad, with bad consequences.
Here’s how this might have looked. Say that Loren’s leadership style is that of “the worker bee.” For Loren to feel the greatness in service that Dr. King spoke of, it would have to come through hands-on projects that made Loren feel like he was accomplishing something. So when he was recruited to join the “Save The Starfish” Committee at the Unitarian Universalist Church by the Sea, he was expecting that the work would involve him going out there to the beach, getting his feet sandy, getting sweaty, grabbing hold of individual starfish and lofting them back into to the sea. But what happened instead is that the Committee asked him to meet in the church library, and the meeting agenda essentially focused on developing a strategic plan for increasing the numbers of folks who might get involved in saving the starfish. Aspects of the plan included: (1) networking with area churches and non-profits, to drum up visibility and potential new recruits; (2) working with the Minister and Music Director to lead a Sunday service on the spirituality of saving starfish including appropriately moving music by the Choir; and (3) developing a fundraising initiative to pay for a banner that would be posted at the beach area where the starfish were being saved. This was what the meeting was about, of the ‘Save the Starfish” Committee, there in the library of the Unitarian Universalist Church by the Sea.
The fact is, some folks love big-picture planning, and they absolutely would feel the greatness of service that Dr. King spoke of in this committee context. I’ve heard it said that in any given congregation, 20% of the folks are like this. But the other 80% are more like Loren. They are worker bees. For them, a planning meeting full of talk-talk-TALK is HELL!
Ring any bells?
What ended up happening is that Loren smiled a lot during his first Committee meeting, and the fifth, and the tenth. Loren was a nice young man, after all; he didn’t want to let anyone down. But he eventually felt burned out, and he would eventually leave the church.
And now he is an old man full of cynicism.
It’s just to say: greatness through service isn’t a one-size-fits-all thing. When you are invited to serve, know your style and insist on it. When you invite others to serve in your group or committee, tell them about the role you’re asking them to serve in and the best leadership style for it. Have a job description handy.
Dr. King remains right. “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.” “You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.” Yes. Amen. But you do need to know about your volunteer preferences and style. Else you get burned out.
But now: there is one last leadership insight to consider, and it is crucial. Let’s go back to the story one more time, and do a little imaginative re-writing.
Imagine: The old man (whom we have named Loren) laughs at the young man, and the young man responds to the old man’s laughter by picking up another starfish and throwing it into the sea and saying, “I made a difference to that one.” But rather than silencing the old man, his laughter morphs into a sneaky look and a glint in the eyes. He says, “Ok, but what difference precisely did you make to that one? How can you know it’s now safe?”
The fact is, the act of throwing a starfish out to sea does not itself constitute saving it. The Google tells me that starfish are very tasty to crabs, lobsters, bottom dwelling fish, and other sea stars—not to mention seagulls.
Hearing this, what happens next? What does the ending of our imaginatively re-written story look like? Does the young man relent and, in the blink of an eye, become cynical just like the old man?
Or does something preserve his capacity to care?
Do you see how this last issue matters? It is the issue of not being able to know the exact results of our well-intended actions. If we are clinging to results—if we must know the exact results, but can’t, this also can disappoint and disillusion and cause a caring person to just walk on by.
Our situation as a church is a glaring example of this. I wish our mission statement could be as concrete as “saving starfish one at a time.” I wish. But mission statements for churches are, of necessity, broader and loftier in scope. Ours, currently, is this: To inspire more people to live lives of meaning and purpose. Ok! But how can I know that the Mandala Meditation group I am leading is helping to accomplish that? How can someone know that teaching in an RE class is helping to accomplish that? How does a person even measure something as vague as “being inspired”?
Maybe something that happens today, here in church, will make a life-or death difference to someone 2 years, or 5 years, or 10 years from now. Maybe a child in one of our RE classes turns out, years from now, to be a United States Senator, or even President. But how could we know that right now?
But, in our re-written version of the star thrower story, I remain convinced that the young man ever stays young. He may grow chronologically old, but his heart stays young, and whenever there is a moment to serve and he is available, he serves, and thus he is great.
Yes, he may not know, with certainty, the results of his throwing the starfish back into the sea, but he can know with certainty something else: the result to his sense of self of not doing it, of not caring. For him to walk past something that deserves care–and he honestly was in a position to make a difference in that situation–ah! Something breaks inside. He has done harm to himself. His self-respect is diminished. His integrity is weakened.
And so it is for us as well.
We do harm to ourselves.
Our self-respect is diminished.
Our integrity is weakened.
There are so many starfish out there. So many opportunities to bring more aliveness and justice and value to life. To throw the starfish there at your feet back into the sea is of course for the sake of that starfish, yes, but even more so, it is for the sake of your own soul. To preserve the integrity of your own soul is the clearest, most dependable reason of all to serve.
We here at West Shore put a Black Lives Matter banner up on the building not because that will itself eradicate racism but because: who do we become when we shy away from stating our conscience and our truth to our neighborhood?
We serve as worker bees or big picture planners at West Shore not because we can guarantee in specifics how the church’s mission will be thereby fulfilled but because: who do we as individual congregants become when we take from the blessings of this place but we don’t give back, we don’t contribute the small part we can?
In our imaginatively re-written story, the old man thinks he’s out-foxed the young man, asking him with a sneaky smile and a glint in his eye, “Ok, but what difference precisely did you make to that starfish you just threw back into the sea? How can you know it’s now safe?”
And the young man replies, “Honestly, I can’t offer any guarantees except one:
that if I don’t find a way to serve, if I just walk on by, I lose self-respect.
My soul shrivels.
I believe I made a difference to the starfish I just threw back, I hope so.
But there is something I do know,
and I know it without a doubt.
I know, without a doubt,
that I made the biggest difference to myself.
This, I know.”
I call that great.