[Apparently the starfish story has its roots in Loren Eiseley, for whatever that is worth.][Originally posted at Slacktivist and The Slacktiverse on April 11th 2011]
There is a story, often told. The details are seldom the same, because the story isn't the kind that needs consistent details. It always takes place on a beach, always after a storm, and always in the morning. The storm, it seems, had pushed the water onto the land much farther than it would normally go, and when the water receded it left behind much more than it normally would. Doubtless there was seaweed and and crabs and periwinkles, but we don't really know because the story isn't about them. No, for this story what matters is the starfish.
The beach was littered with them. Hundreds if not thousands dotting the beach as far as the eye could see until the beach bent back away from the ocean and disappeared behind the houses that had been built on its border. Unlike the crabs that may have been washed ashore the starfish could not scurry quickly back to the ocean. They moved too slowly to save themselves and were drying out in the freshly risen sun.
It is at this point that a child is introduced. Let us say a little girl, though that is by no means certain. What matters is not her gender, or her race, or her creed. What matters is not her nationality, or her class. What matters is not her family history, or her friends, or her political views, if she is even old enough to have formed them. So all of these things are passed over in favor of what does matter, and what does matter is what she did. She walked along the beach picking up starfish and throwing them as hard as she could as far as she could into the sea. As soon as one was safely in the water she would move on to the next, and then the next. And so on.
Then another character walks onto the scene. An adult. I like to think he's an old man whose wrinkled face makes you believe that he is a font of wisdom earned from a long life in which he has seen it all. Sometimes I think he has a cane, others I think that a cane probably isn't a good thing to have on the loose sand of the beach. Sometimes I feel like he has a long gray beard, link Gandalf or Dumbledore, others I feel that he he is clean shaven. None of that matters. What matters is what he says. He sees the girl, throwing a starfish into the sea, running to the next one, throwing it into the sea, and continuing onward. He discovers that she is trying to save them, perhaps by asking her, perhaps he simply knows. Either way, he says, “There are too many of them, you'll never make a difference.”
For a moment the girl stops. She glares at him. It is a hard cold glare. A mixture of determination and utter contempt. Then she bends down, picks up a starfish, and throws it into the sea. She looks back at the old man. “I made a difference.” She pauses for a moment. “To. That. One.”
And the story ends. We don't learn how the old man responds, if he does at all. We don't know if either of them is changed by their encounter. We don't know how many starfish were saved and how many died. We don't know what becomes of the old man and the girl. We don't know anything like that because that's not what the story is about. The story is about that one, the starfish she made a difference to. The entire point of the story is summed up in the last seven words of dialog, because what the story is about is that to make a difference doesn't require massive numbers. The story is about the fact that making a difference isn't about nudging the needle to good from evil.
All that is required to make a difference is that you change one life for the better.
I use this story for shorthand. When someone asks me why we should try to distribute food when there are too many hungry people to have any hope of helping, I say, “Starfish.” When someone asks why we should try to tell people the truth about god and the Antichrist when there are so many people, and we'll never tell, much less convince, them all I say, “Starfish.”
When someone asks me why we're about to go on a rescue mission when we can never free all those who don't deserve to be imprisoned, I say, “Starfish.”
We can't everything, we can't save everyone, but we can do everything we can for those who are in front of us. At the moment that is Jenny and her team. They were captured because they helped us find the hub, if not for us they'd still be safely undercover. That makes us about as close to them as can be. They're a cluster of five starfish that we're practically standing on we're so close. It would be evil not to help them return to the safety of the ocean. On the way we'll free as many others as we can. Or die trying. Dying trying is always a possibility.