When I was a kid and my parents would take me to church, I’d often get antsy sitting there in the pew with nothing to do but listen to the minister. This is no surprise, of course. What churchgoing kid hasn’t gotten antsy just sitting there in those hard-backed pews? But because of that kidish antsyness, there aren’t very many sermons that I can clearly recall from my childhood.
One sermon did lodge itself in my memory, though—actually, only a part of the sermon. (And some important prerequisite knowledge here: Starfish can’t live out of the water for very long. Just like regular fish. You probably know that, but the story doesn’t make any sense if you don’t, so at the risk of sounding didactic, I include that crucial tidbit. Pardon the digression.) The minister told a story about a guy who is strolling along the beach when he comes across another guy. This other guy is picking up beached starfish and throwing them back into the ocean. The first guy goes up to the starfish-thrower guy and says, "Why are you doing that? What’s the point? There are beached starfish up and down this beach for miles and miles. You can’t possibly make a difference." But the starfish-thrower guy isn’t fazed. He just bends down, picks up another starfish and wings it into the ocean. Then, he looks at the first guy and says, "Makes a difference to that one."
By the way, a quick search of Google and Wikipedia reveals the story’s origin. Loren Eiseley, an American professor and writer, wrote an essay called "The Star Thrower," which appeared in his 1969 book "The Unexpected Universe." Goog-pedia also tells me the story has been used by a host of public speakers since its publication, in altered versions occasionally, depending upon agendas and audiences. But credit where credit is due.
What really strikes me is the ironclad logic with which both these guys consider the starfish. The first guy is right, of course. With tons of starfish up and down the beach, pitching 30 or 40 or 50 back into the water is the epitome of futility. Not to mention the fact that the ocean is going to keep washing up starfish. So that miniscule number of starfish the starfish-thrower saves is going to be undone by the time the next wave, packed with new starfish, crashes upon the beach. And yet none could deny that the starfish in the starfish-thrower’s hand, then in the air, then back in the water, has gone from death to life. What was once unalterable doom has become bright redemption.
I’m a macro-guy. I tend to view problems from a bird’s-eye view, whether the problem is big and consequential—the rise of the alt right, for example—or teensy and dumb. "What’s the most efficient way to rake all these damn leaves in the front yard? Wagon wheel pattern? Stripes, like how I mow?" I hardly ever simply get started. And if it appears, before the outset of the project, it won’t be worth my time and energy—or anybody’s time and energy—than I’ll find something else to do. My wife, on the other hand, sees life’s problems from the perspective of one firmly ensconced in its details. Colors matter. Little sounds matter. And once the details become apparent of how any given problem should be solved, any deviation from those carefully orchestrated details can be big trouble.
The glaring drawback of my general macro-orientation is the way it squelches my ability to consider the person in need, in front of me, now. When I see those raggedy guys with the "please help" signs at the stoplight at Moore Road and North Terrace, a few blocks from our house, my brain goes big-picture. I may ruminate upon Chattanooga’s general friendliness/unfriendliness to its most desperate citizens. I might get angry at federal economic policies that preference the incredibly, unnecessarily wealthy. Maybe I’d start planning a neighborhood sleeping bag distribution program. Regardless, what inevitably happens is this: The light turns green. I step on the gas. I make my turn. And just like that, the suffering person disappears—conveniently—from my line of sight.
When my wife sees those guys, she can’t stop thinking about them. Those guys, of course, are the details of poverty, the human consequences of flawed morality, failed religion and unjustly skewed city, county, state and federal policies designed to "help" them. But she’s done something that never even occurred to me. She went out and bought gallon-sized Ziploc bags and a bunch of items that could be useful for a person in homelessness: tissues, snacks, Walmart gift cards, razors, toothbrushes. She put together these packs and stashed them in our cars. Now, when she pulls up to that light and that sign-holding person asks for help, she rolls down the window and says, "I don’t know if it helps, but I can give you this."
And by the way, we have three kids. And they’re usually in the car with my wife. And they’re watching. And they’re learning, very early in their lives, how to be compassionate in an increasingly hardhearted world.
It depends on whom you ask about the stats, so I’ll just say it this way: There are a lot of homeless people in Chattanooga, so much so that professional people routinely get together to try to figure out how to end homelessness. There are good ideas and horrible ideas, practical ideas and pie-in-the sky ideas. But meanwhile, while the rest debate the merits of this policy or that, there’s my wife. With those stuffed Ziploc bags. Doing something for the men and women she sees by the side of the road. Now, will what she does trickle up to the powers that be? It should, but it probably won’t. The scale is too small to matter. But guess what? It matters to that one.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, "Animal Heart," is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.