A small boy lived by the ocean. He loved the creatures of the sea, especially the starfish, and spent much of his time exploring the seashore. One day he learned there would be a minus tide that would leave the starfish stranded on the sand. The day of the tide he went down to the beach and began picking up stranded starfish and tossing them back into the sea.

An elderly man who lived next door came down to the beach to see what he was doing. “I’m saving the starfish,” the boy proudly declared. When the neighbor saw all of the stranded starfish, he shook his head and said “I’m sorry to disappoint you, young man, but if you look down the beach one way, there are stranded starfish as far as the eye can see. And if you look down the beach the other way, it’s the same. One little boy like you isn’t going to make much of a difference.”

The boy thought about this for a moment. Then he reached his small hand down to the sand, picked up a starfish, tossed it out into the ocean and said, “I sure make a difference for that one.”

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Not long ago, in the wee hours of the morning, I drove my daughter to the emergency room at a local hospital so she could get treated for a sudden and severe ear infection that is all too common for someone with Type 1 diabetes. After an hour and a half of waiting and two minutes of a doctor’s time, we finally found ourselves at the hospital pharmacy waiting for them to dispense the eardrops she needed to quell the inflammation.

While we were hanging out on one of the two benches in the stark pharmacy waiting area, another woman came in who was obviously in some kind of physical pain.

She was young – in her early 20s, like Josie – but was shuffling in slippered feet, sniffling and moaning, sometimes hitching out a sob. It was difficult to watch, difficult to be around. She sat on the bench opposite us, rocking back and forth, rubbing her thighs. She appeared to be alone.
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As we waited for Josie’s prescription, the woman was asked to come to the transaction window.  While we didn’t want to eavesdrop, the conversation was loud enough that we could overheard the pharmacy tech saying that they could find no open insurance policy for her. They could fill her prescription but she would have to pay cash for it – $62.53. Would she like to pay cash? In a small, defeated voice she said yes, yes, yes, she would pay cash.

She was told it would take a few more minutes, so she sat down across from us again, silent now, but rubbing up and down her thighs while tears spilled from her eyes.

They called my daughter’s name and she went to collect her prescription while I continued to wait on the bench. I took the opportunity to lean over and touch the woman lightly on the knee. “I hope things get better for you soon,” I said quietly. “Thank you, I appreciate that,” she said in a voice that made it clear she truly did.

It was taking a long time at the transaction window so I got up to see what was happening. When I came up to her, I saw that Josie was fumbling with her phone. She said softly, “I want to pay for that woman’s prescription, but I have to check my bank account to see if I had enough to cover it.”
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I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of my girl than I was at that moment. Here is a young woman who struggles to hold even a part time job due to health issues, who has precious little spending money of her own, and yet felt compelled to help someone else who is struggling. Sure, I gave the woman a tad bit of encouragement. Josie was willing to comfort her in a far more significant way.

I ended up paying rather than having Josie max out her account, but I never would have thought of it on my own. As we walked down the hallway to the parking lot, Josie said in a voice on the edge of tears, “I know what it’s like to be in pain – no one should have to go through that.” And she’s right. In this day and age, in this land of plenty, no one should ever be in that kind of pain.

Now, we don’t have a lot of money. That $62.53 was not insignificant. But we are not desperate, and we have each other, we have support. This woman didn’t appear to have any of that. She was a starfish, washed up on the shore. She wasn’t asking for anything, but she was suffering and we could help. Thanks to my big hearted daughter who has known her share of pain, we did help. And it felt like we had not just helped a lonely soul in the pre-dawn hours in a stark pharmacy waiting room, but that we had helped the world, just the tiniest bit. One more starfish tossed back into the tide.

As we all move forward in this time, when many of us are feeling lost in a world that we do not understand, when we lay awake at night, fearful of what the next day’s revelations may bring, and do bring, when we feel afloat on a tide of avarice and enmity, it’s easy to look at the enormity of the ignorance and intolerance confronting us and feel abject despair. What can we do in the face of so much hate? What can we to do keep a sense of privilege and entitlement from strangling liberty and justice for all?

Yes, we can band together. Yes, we can join forces and use our time, energy and resources to act against those who want to re-marginalize those in our society that are deemed “different”, or “other.” We can speak out, we can refuse to back down in the face of those who wish to limit, to divide, to exclude, and instead continue to lift up, to celebrate and promote diversity, and to stand up for our own rights as women, as people of color, as people who live alternative lifestyles, as disabled individuals, as people of many religions and as people of no religion.

But we can also look for more private moments when we can make a direct impact on the life of another human being. To throw that starfish back in the water. To put some more love out into the world. To make a difference.

~ Sharon Browning

NOTE: I first ran across the starfish story which appears at the start of this essay many years ago on a poster sold by a nearby “products for progressives” store that my friend Alice worked at, Northern Sun (if you’re interested, they still sell the poster). I have since come across the original story (“The Star Thrower” by Loren Eiseley), and have seen it in many different iterations, but this one still remains my favorite because it is simple and impactful.

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