Most of us have heard the story of the starfish. A man approaches a little boy on the seashore who is picking up and throwing stranded starfish back into the ocean. The man disparages the boy by telling him that he isn’t even making a dent on the problem as there are hundreds of starfish on the shore. He tells the boy he can’t possibly make a difference and starfish are just going to keep ending up on the shorelines to die. Then comes the memorable reply from the boy as he throws another starfish - “It mattered to that one."
This parable has a lot of depth which is probably why it’s been so popular for decades. I’ve seen various versions of it and it always seems to ends with “author unknown.” Surely such a well known story has to have an author? A few months ago I became curious enough to look into the origin of the story.
I was surprised to find that the original ‘Starfish Story’ wasn’t easy to find! Eventually I found that the story was written in 1978 by Loren Eisley, a science writer, based on experiences from his own life. I couldn’t find his short book at the local library; I searched the local bookstore with no luck either. Then I finally turned online to Amazon for an old, used copy. I anxiously waited for the book to come and the rarity made me feel like it was a treasure.
I read the 16 page essay and thought it was really good. It had a great deal of substance to it which the popular, simplified version couldn’t compare with. While I’d definitely recommend anyone read the entire story, here is my own synopsis and thoughts on the original essay.
The piece begins with Eisley’s solo trip to a coastal tourist town. He is in a pessimistic and difficult place in his life. The trip is a soul searching one for him as he contemplates his life and his many challenges. He feels especially lonely. One evening as Eisley walks thoughtfully along the beach he notices that there are seashells and sea life scattered along the beach due to the low tide. There are professional shellers and tourists who are anxiously picking them up to cook or sell. The stranded creatures don’t stand a chance. They are gathering their fares quickly in order to beat other people to the treasures strewn across the sand. This frantic grasping for personal gain adds to Eisley’s feelings of pessimism.
The next morning at dawn Eisley goes to the beach for another walk. The same gatherers are still on the beach, but this time he notices a lone figure on a the horizon on a rocky part near a cove. As Eisley walks closer he sees the man picking up starfish from the small tide pools and throwing them back into the sea. He approaches the man and strikes up a conversation. The star throwing man, with kindness in his eyes, tells him, “The stars throw well. One can help them” Eisley is astounded at his optimism.
As he walks away he is filled with cynicism about the man’s futile goal. Into the evening Eisley contemplates more about life, has a change of heart, and he decides to revisit the star thrower the next day. On the beach the next morning, standing beside the star thrower, Eisley quietly picks up and throws a starfish into the ocean. Eisley then says, “I understand. Call me another thrower” and tells himself that he won’t let the star thrower be alone in his mission to save a life one at a time.
I especially love this excerpt at the conclusion of the essay when Eisley and the star thrower stand together looking out at the sea: “But we, pale and alone and small in that immensity, hurled back the living stars. Somewhere far off…I felt as though another world was flung more joyfully. I could have thrown in a frenzy of joy, but I set my shoulders and cast, as the thrower, slowly, deliberately as well. The task was not to assumed lightly, for it was men as well as starfish that we sought to save.”
I have always loved this story, but always felt something was lacking when I heard the shorter version. The original piece comes closer to filling the missing sentiment.The short version always ends with the star thrower sharing the final lesson to the stranger, “It mattered to that one.” While the overall idea—each individual matters and that we shouldn’t stop helping others because problems are too immense—is great, the lesson shouldn’t end there. What I think is missing is the the invitation of the star thrower to encourage others to start throwing too! Great power could come from the star thrower turning to the perceptive stranger and adding, “Star throwing is amazing! You should join me!” With Eisley’s original story the star thrower ‘recruits’ Eisley and changes his outlook in a such a way where Eisley wants to help too. It ends with Eisley standing shoulder to shoulder with the star thrower, casting his first star into the ocean, and feeling a resolve to join in the mission.
This story has resonated with me because this is what LiveRad is all about. Average people attempting to help others while also encouraging others to join in. There are so many starfish that need help and we can work together to do good. Let’s never stop looking for starfish to save. Better yet - invite others to join you in your ideas and efforts! We hope that LiveRad becomes a community of starfish throwers.