July 13, 2009

The starfish... and babies in the river

    Well now, this is strange: I could have sworn I had written this out in my journal, but it's nowhere to be found. Did I dream it...? Has it simply been so vividly alive in my head that I had only thought I had written it out...?

    Well now, here it is.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .

The week before I left for Gathering in June, I found myself reflecting on two images that seemed related to each other yet were very different.

(NOTE: Embellishments to the original story and changes in gender and ages of the characters are my own.)

The starfish

There is a popular story about how we can make a difference in life, which basically goes like this:
One day, a little girl walking along the beach notices thousands of starfish just out of reach of the water. Off in the distance, she sees a person who is bending down, reaching for something, and tossing something into the waves. As she approaches, she realizes it's an old woman, tossing starfish one by one back into the ocean.

A bit skeptical about what good any of this will do, given how many starfish lay on the miles and miles of beach, the girl says to the old woman, "There are so many starfish out here, and the waves will just keep dumping more of them here all day, why waste your time, what difference will it make?"

To which the old woman bends down, picks up a starfish, and frisbees it over the water back into the waves.

"Well, I made a difference to that one."

Babies in the river

And then there's the second story, which I embellished quite a bit from a brief remark in Linda Stout's book (p. 106, with a reference to Rosie's Place in Boston).
There is a village of kind folk, living near a river. One day, as a group of children were playing by the river, they noticed something funny coming down to them from upstream.

There were babies in the river!

The children ran into the village, yelling to everyone they came across, "There are babies in the river! There are babies in the river!"

The village emptied out and everyone ran to the river to see for themselves. Those who got there first quickly started wading into the river and grabbed at the infants to pull them out, passing them by their tiny arms and legs to other villagers who had arrived seconds after them.

But the babies kept coming.

After an hour, two hours, three hours of pulling babies from the river, a few of the oldest villagers, too feeble to help with the rescue effort, fell back away from the riverside.

They didn't return to the village though.

They headed upstream instead, to see who was throwing babies into the river and what might be done about that.

I think these two images and stories have been with me because they speak to me about the many times I have taken action that amounts to tossing individual starfish into the ocean or pulling drowning babies from the river. The individual lives of those with whom I interact may in fact be changed, whether it's through a financial donation I've made for flood relief, a few volunteer hours in a women's organization, or starting a mentoring relationship with a depressed and isolated pre-teen.

But I mustn't think my work is done.

These days, I have been wondering what keeps me from investigating "upstream"? What keeps me away from coalitions that work to change policy? What keeps me away from organizations that work to change society and not just provide services that address the results of the current system?

(The other day at Meeting for Worship, I practically prayed to be changed by the Spirit intrinsically--but not by being whacked on the side of the head--just so I could get over my own ignorance and unconscious (or conscious!) privilege.)

These images and stories aren't the only things that speak to me and challenge me.

The social class workshop I took at Gathering is still impacting me, more than a week later. The conversations I'm having with my partner, difficult as they are, are stretching me to think beyond class oppression and instead to consider "internalized superiority"--a multigenerational trait of my family and of white, upper class/owning class society, that is hard to point to and harder to break.

The new discussion that has barely emerged at the monthly meeting around marriage equality--and whether to suspend serving as the state's "legal agent" for straight marriages under the care of the meeting--tests my patience as I listen to straight Friends openly talk about not wanting to give up their privilege.

At the same time, I recognize in myself that even giving up any non-unearned privilege I have would be among the hardest thing I would ever choose to do. (By this last point, I mean practical privileges to which I have access, like an iPhone, cable TV, TV in general, the car, multiple days' worth of clothing, access to food co-ops, etc.)

Living with these two stories, though, of the starfish and the babies in the river, makes me realize that there is always more to do. There is always more we can do, if we can convince ourselves and our faith community that it's worth the effort to work towards social change and not just provide social services.



Su said...

Funny--I'm doing a workbook called 40-day Journey with Parker Palmer, and it included the starfish story the other day. In this version, though, villagers come out every morning to collect starfish from the beach, which they kill and sell. But the writer goes even earlier one day, and finds a man throwing some of the starfish back into the sea before the villagers come to harvest them.

We were asked to meditate on the story, and clearly we were supposed to see the starfish-thrower as someone to emulate. But I found myself wondering about the villagers and their needs, the economic options available to them, and how to balance compassion for the starfish with compassion for the people who were collecting and killing them.

It complicates the story a little.

Cat C-B (and/or Peter B) said...

Liz, to me the stories that you give here show the importance of careful discernment of leadings. Some of us pull babies from the river; some of us go upstream. Both are needed, and, speaking as someone who has earned my bread as someone who is effective with individuals, but not particularly effective as an activist on a large scale, you burn out faster if you're doing the wrong job--the one you're not led to.

I have a hard time laying things down, I know. But I'm trying to work on that. Rather than feeling inadequate for not doing all the work there is to be done, I'm trying to learn to ask myself, Is this the job that I'm supposed to do today?

This is important for me, at least.

Liz Opp said...

Su -

Thanks for adding this reference to another way that the starfish story is told. You're right about the added levels of complexity-- boy, am I glad I don't run a country or even a village! smile

Cat -

I would say the story shows the importance of testing leadings and using discernment, so in the long term, we more likely will put God's gifts and agency to better use.

But if we waited for all of us to test our leadings and wait for clearness, there'd be all those many babies that would have drowned in the river in the meantime! There is a time to act and a time to discern...

For me, the story points to how quick I am, personally, to attend to what is emergent, and how at some point, I (we?) will do just as well to consider what led to the "emergence" of the original situation to begin with.

If too many of us rush to the babies in the river, there may not be enough of us to change whatever is allowing those babies to get into the water in the first place.


Heather said...

Thank you for this, Liz - very thought-provoking. I knew the starfish story, but not the second one. Could I use your versions in the Durham UK Meeting newsletter, please? I'll credit you and give a link to your blog. If this is OK, please email me at heather dot cawte at gmail dot com - thanks.

I love reading your blog, it always makes me look at things in a different way...

Liz Opp said...

Heather -

I'm sorry for the delayed reply: I've been traveling LOTS in July and so of course a number of things have fallen through the gaping cracks in my life!

Look for an email from me in response to your question.