Some years ago, I was reading a book by the great naturalist Loren Eiseley and came upon a chapter titled “The Star Thrower”. In it Eiseley shared an encounter he’d had on the coast of Costabel. In the distance, framed by a rainbow, he saw a man squatting staring at the sand. As Eiseley drew closer, he saw that the man staring at a star fish in the sand. Eiseley noted that the star fish was still alive. “Yes” the man said. “Then with a quick yet gentle movement he picked up the star and spun it over my head and far out into the sea…’It may live’ he said ‘if the offshore pull is strong enough'”
The image haunted me. It still does.
Once I set out for a morning run along a beach above Dublin. As I ran, I noticed the beach was awash with starfish. And so I bent, picked one up and joyfully tossed it as far as I could throw. Then I threw another. And another. And another. Then I realized the beach was filled with star fish. I couldn’t throw them all back.
Later that day, I walked along the same beach and saw many dead starfish as well as people collecting them. I thought myself a failure as a Star Thrower. But as I watched the ocean, as always I was mesmerized by its rhythm. I realized that the flow of life and death was timeless. That starfish would wash up onto countless beaches to die. That one man could not undo the ocean’s divine rhtyhm of life and death.
And yet the actions of the Star Thrower still mattered to me. Was I drawn to some type of naive idealism? If so, that had been challenged on the beach above Dublin. No matter how much time I spent throwing starfish back into the ocean, most would continue to wash up on beaches to die.
Was the Star Thrower exhibiting some form of protest that I was drawn to? Perhaps not, because he went about his task noticed only by Eiseley. Yet there might have been a slight pushing back against the laws of nature. Perhaps he thought “I know I cannot save all the star fish but perhaps it matters that I can save a few.”
As a therapist, I had long ago faced the frustration that there was far more pain and problems in the world than I could manage to address. As a finite being, I had and have limits as to how much I could and can do to help. It was tempting to give up and follow another path. Anyone involved in dealing with human suffering knows or should know that what they do matters only to those they try to help and sometimes not even then.
Yet I believe it does matter, just as the Star Thrower’s efforts mattered.
What Eiseley also noticed about the Star Thrower’s efforts was that it was an expression of love, not individual love but a love of life. The Star Thrower’s efforts affirmed life and took a stand for life. And in affirming life, he affirmed compassion for ALL of life. Picking up a star fish and throwing it back into the sea. Perhaps it matters after all.
So there it is. No, I could not save all the starfish on that Irish beach. But the ones I threw I did so with love and compassion. Perhaps that is what makes us human.