One Starfish

A vacationing businessman was walking along a beach when he saw a young boy. Along the shore were many starfish that had been washed up by the tide and were sure to die before the tide returned. The boy walked slowly along the shore and occasionally reached down and tossed the beached starfish back into the ocean. The businessman, hoping to teach the boy a little lesson in common sense and futility, walked up to the boy and said, “I have been watching what you are doing, son. You have a good heart, and I know you mean well, but do you realize how many beaches there are around here and how many starfish are dying on every beach every day. Surely such an industrious and kind hearted boy such as yourself could find something better to do with your time.

Do you really think that what you are doing is going to make a difference?”

The boy looked up at the man, and then he looked down at a starfish by his feet. He picked up the starfish, and as he gently tossed it back into the ocean, he said,

“It makes a difference to that one”.

When it comes to helping kids, we must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee. We must not grow so frustrated with the futility of our challenge that we stop trying to make a difference to “that one kid”.

I know that sometimes it gets frustrating trying to help kids build their characters. Often we feel like for every step we take forward, we take two steps back. We get overcome by a feeling of futility. We wonder if the world today and all the hard work that we have done with kids during the past decades would be exactly the same if you had taken up an expensive hobby instead of committing so much of your time, efforts, and personal resources to kids. Why make such an effort teaching kids about doing the right thing if they’re going to end up blowing it anyway?

You are not alone. You are in the company of many teachers, coaches, counselors, parents, pastors, and priests of our generation who work with young people. These feelings of futility are unhealthy for both you and for the kids you serve. So what can you do about it?

Renew your commitment. At some point in your life you made a commitment to helping young people and whether you feel like it right now or not, you’ve got to renew that commitment and let the people around you know that you are willing to not only make the effort to overcome, but that you will overcome. You have got to restore the joy that you had once known serving kids. Do you think that you can do this on your own? I don’t think so. Part of the reason some of us are suffering from futility is because when we’ve been knocked down we’ve relied completely on ourselves to bring us back up. And many times when we try that, we fail. We need to call on our closest friends to help renew our spirits and to give us the strength we need to make it. Most of the time all we need to do is lower our pride and ask them for their help. Please let down your guard, ask your friends to help rebuild your spirit and then renew your commitment to kids.

Avoid negative influences. You know that old saying, “Misery loves company”, well it’s true. There are people out there who are in a similar circumstance than you are and whether they are trying to or not, they are contributing to your feelings of futility. Do you ever find yourself complaining about how frustrating working with kids is now days and how you never seem to get anywhere with them? Stop for a moment, look around, and see who is agreeing with you? Who is being miserable with you? When someone joins you in your misery, you’ve got to begin viewing that as a spiritual attack, and for the health of your soul you have got to rebuke those negative thoughts and images from your mind. Leave the “pity party” you are having for yourself. Refuse to be a part of those negative influences by restating, remembering and re-enacting the fact that you have been called to serve a higher purpose and that even if you only save “one kid”, the sacrifices you have made will have been worth it.

In his book “Teaching the Elephant to Dance”, James Belasco describes how trainers shackle young elephants with heavy chains to deeply embedded stakes. In that way the elephant learns to stay in its place. Older, powerful elephants never try to leave, even though they have the strength to pull the stake and walk away. Their conditioning has limited their movements. With only a metal bracelet around their foot attached to a short piece of chain, they stand in place; the stakes are actually gone! Like powerful elephants, people are bound by earlier conditioned restraints. If you are suffering from futility, it is a learned behavior that has taken place over time and it is now holding back your positive influence on kids just like the un-attached chain around an elephant’s foot. When the circus tent catches on fire and the elephant sees the flames and smells the smoke, it forgets its old conditioning and runs for its life. If you are suffering from futility, you need to realize that your spiritual house is on fire and you better do something about it before it burns down. It is time to remind yourself day after day, moment by moment, that you are not here on this earth just for yourself, but you have been called to a higher purpose in your service to humanity. You need to “go the distance” for these kids. Even if your work with kids has handed you some bad times recently, even if it seems like you aren’t having any impact on all the young people you are working with, and even if it seems like your service to youth is failing, all it takes is having the influence on that one kid that makes a difference.

Who does it make a difference to?

Like the boy in the story says, “It makes a difference to that one”.