The Starfish Story – more complicated than at first sight?


‘An old man was walking along the beach at dawn, when he noticed a young woman who was picking up starfish and throwing them back into the sea. Getting a little closer, the man asked her the reason for her actions. She replied that if the starfish stayed on the sand until the morning sun rose high, they would die.

“But the beach goes on for miles, and there are starfish as far as the eye can see”, observed the old man. “Why do you bother?”.

The young woman looked up, and down at the starfish in her hand. Then she threw it out to sea.

“For this one”, she said, “it makes all the difference” ‘

It’s a lovely piece, often used as a motivational text for those working in sectors where it can seem that the demand is huge and the success rate poor. Addiction issues, homelessness, mental health – they all fit that description. So one must try to live with what can at times seem endless disappointments, and celebrate the less frequent moments of breakthrough, of progress, of success. Whatever ‘success’ means. We cannot help all of the starfish. And not all of the starfish want to be helped. And they may not want to be on the beach, but they may not want to be in the sea either. Maybe we project onto the starfish our own feelings that we would want to be helped into the sea if we were them. Maybe the starfish find the beach unpleasant, but the sea big, unknown and scary. And maybe we are just addressing our own issues by ‘helping’ those starfish.

I’ve been helping at Doorway for nearly a year. I’d been very ill, very nearly fatally so. It wasn’t clear if I would ever make it back to my old job. Volunteering at Doorway seemed to be a way of increasing activity and structure in my life again. And, if I’m being honest, it wasn’t going to do me any harm in showing my professional body that I could handle the commitment, the responsibility, and the stress. I had worked with people with addiction and mental health issues before, but not so much the homeless. They tend to surface into the healthcare system mainly, or only, at times of real crisis and emergency. Or sometimes just when dead. And when I had had contact, there had been the professional role affecting the relationship.

This turned out to be different. More personal. A more equal relationship. A much greater insight into individuals as people with problems, rather than problems with a name attached. I’ve learned more about them. And I’ve learned more about myself. I am also aware, even more than I ever was (and in the times of wilderness and illness, I was becoming quite aware of it), how narrow the margins are in our society between ‘success’ and ‘failure’, and between being an accepted member of mainstream society and being on the margins, on the streets, looked down upon, despised, ignored by Joe and Josephine Public.

So one of the prime ideas of this blog is to give people a chance to tell their stories. In their words, in their way. Hopefully, telling those stories will help them. And hopefully, reading those stories may help others to understand more, and to see the person behind the statistic.

The more I’ve thought about the starfish story, the more I’ve realised that I’m a starfish as well. And another thing – I’ve always quoted that story, as above, as being by St-Exupery. But now I find other sources that say it was based on a story called ‘TheStar Thrower’  by an anthropologist called Loren Eiseley. Life is rarely as simple as it might at first seem….


About calneeagle

Volunteer at Doorway. Health care professional. Degree in sociology and politics.
This entry was posted in Charity, Chippenham, Homelessness, Mental Health, Wiltshire and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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