An inspirational story reconsidered.
My son being one of the smart kids, I am obliged to attend a lot of high school functions. All these events tend to feature the obligatory inspirational-type speaker (a politician, lawyer, or clergyman) who unfailingly parrots the same message. And it’s not the virtues of capitalism, trust me. Rather, it’s some version of the old saw that “to whom much is given much is expected.”
But don’t expect much in the way of variety. Nearly all the speakers begin by telling the same tale. I’m guessing you have heard “The Starfish Story.” It’s the one that begins with the speaker strolling down a beach when he comes across a fellow chucking starfish back into the ocean. The speaker approaches and says something to the effect that there are tens of thousands of starfish washed up on the beach. He can’t possibly make a difference. The man patiently smiles and skips another fish into the salty brine. “Made a difference for that one,” he says.
At this point my son will glance at me from the stage and roll his eyes. We are both having the same thought: “I’ll tell you what kind of difference you made. You just deprived some starving baby seagull of its dinner! And I didn’t see you helping those poor jellyfish that washed ashore. Is it because they are not as pretty as sea stars and hurt like hell when they sting you?” My son is only 17; he can look forward to rolling his eyes through “The Starfish Story” for many years to come.
I have never been asked to give one of these inspirational speeches, for obvious reasons, but that doesn’t keep me from imagining what I might say. Being a natural-born contrarian, I am inclined to view with a jaundiced eye the notion we can improve the world. I might quote Voltaire: “We shall leave the world as foolish and wicked as we found it.” Or Samuel Beckett: “The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops.”
Or I might really mix things up by reading from Loren Eiseley’s original essay, “The Star Thrower,” which I happened to come across the other day:
In a pool of sand and silt a starfish had thrust its arms up stiffly and was holding its body away from the stifling mud.
“It’s still alive,” I ventured.
“Yes,” he said, and with a quick yet gentle movement he picked up the star and spun it over my head and far out into the sea. It sunk in a burst of spume, and the waters roared once more.
…”There are not many who come this far,” I said, groping in a sudden embarrassment for words. “Do you collect?”
“Only like this,” he said softly, gesturing amidst the wreckage of the shore. “And only for the living.” He stooped again, oblivious of my curiosity, and skipped another star neatly across the water. “The stars,” he said, “throw well. One can help them.”
…”I do not collect,” I said uncomfortably, the wind beating at my garments. “Neither the living nor the dead. I gave it up a long time ago. Death is the only successful collector.”
Eiseley’s parable is Darwinian in its stark “Nature, red in tooth and claw” conviction. Quite another thing from its sentimental successor.
Fortunately for thousands of after dinner speakers, Eiseley later undergoes a philosophical shift. He dumps Nietzsche for Oprah. As a scientist Eiseley knows nature’s inclination is to thin the herd. At the same time, he recognizes man often contradicts his Darwinian dictates (contraception, anyone?). He knows man can be altruistic and compassionate even to strangers, that we can, in that horrible clichéd phrase, make a difference:
“But I do love the world,” I whispered…. “I love its small ones, the things beaten in the strangling surf, the bird, singing, which flies and falls and is not seen again…I love the lost ones, the failures of the world.” It was like the renunciation of my scientific heritage.
Eiseley then joins the star thrower on the beach, and concludes: “It was men as well as starfish that we sought to save.”
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