Do you know the parable of the starfish? It goes like this:

One day, an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.

Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m saving these starfish, Sir”.

The old man chuckled aloud, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”

The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water and turning to the man, said,

“I made a difference to that one!”

The moral is clear. Even when it feels like we can’t make a difference overall, we can affect change on a small scale, and that change matters. It is a worthy thing to help in the smallest way. And this is largely true. But it doesn’t account for an ocean that viciously casts out all its starfish. That poisons its waters and seeds its beaches with glasses to prevent their return. In the story, the starfish are the victims of the tide, and nothing more.

These days, you try to focus on your starfish. Your life doesn’t stop running because of concentration camps for children, as much as it feels like it should. Whether opponents are heartless or not, you still have to make rent. So you do what you can. Donate a bit. Tweet. March. You wind up slicing out little moments of your life to care about the people who are devastated by this ongoing disaster.

But the parable lies. The gulf in power can be so wide that there are individual people with the power to stop it. People elected and appointed to serve. People whose personal wealth could change everything. The good ones shout themselves hoarse and offer up countless pieces of legislation to address issues. The posers fill the air with self-righteous tweets, but we see their hearts in their votes.

The story can’t account for the concerted effort of evil. The ocean is innocent, the tides are a simple act of nature, utterly unchangeable. But instead of the tides, we find duplicity. We find creatures stealing victories when they needed to lose. To lose and keep losing, until driven back into shadows and caverns until they fear the daylight.

It can’t account for the concentration of evil. That this bullshit is the will of the people and the will of the people is flawed and broken. That evil is as much in apathy as it is in action. The ocean lives inside us all.

The starfish parable is, at its heart, about compassion. The moment to moment compassion we have for difficult circumstances. The difference we make with a single action, regardless of context. It tells us to take pride in that compassion, and to grin when someone questions it. We can see the difference we’re making, it says.

It can’t anticipate conditions where compassion and empathy become a weakness. Where lines have been drawn and urging a mode of understanding with the other side makes us complicit in their crimes. Where cries to humanize people fall on uncaring hears, but anger about that heartless viciousness is met with a sudden interest in the rules of discourse. Where the harbours of meaningful communication have been so thoroughly mined.

I don’t have an ending for this. I wish it was starfish. Simple acts of courage and compassion. I don’t know that it’s ever been more than a story. But for the first time, maybe more of us than ever are staring into this abyss, each holding up our tiny echinoderms. And we know throwing them back won’t save them. We feel betrayed by people who could save them all. We see people hurting them for laughs.

It doesn’t feel like enough.

Jim Tigwell

A survivor of two philosophy degrees, Jim Tigwell spends his days solving interesting problems in software. By night he can be found at poetry slams and whatever art opening has the strangest cheese selection. Host of the biweekly Concept Crucible podcast and occasional blogger, Jim is also a juggler, musician, magician, and maker of digital things. You can find his music and videos at Woot Suit Riot, a channel that doubles as a home for wayward and timid creators. Observe his antics there, or heckle directly on Twitter @ConceptCrucible. If the software and internet game doesn’t pan out, he’s determined to be a great Canadian vampire hunter.

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