How The Starfish Story Shows The Difference We Make Matters

Like The Starfish Allegory, We Can Make A Difference—If We Remember The Danger Of The Single Story

"She knew she made a difference for the starfish she was able to help, and that was enough for her."


From the recent shootings to racism and homophobia and gender inequity, all piling on top of our own personal daily stressors, staying positive is hard. I often feel overwhelmed by all of the pain in the world and my inability to fix it all. As much as I want to fix systemic oppression and everyone's problems, I can't.

However, every bit we do to help others makes a difference worth striving for.

This past Christmas break, I went on an APPLES service-learning trip focused on violence prevention. APPLES is a student-led organization at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that connects public service and academic learning. For a week, my group and I learned about violence prevention and response nonprofits and resources in Charlotte and served however we were needed. Before our trip, we had an orientation session in which we learned valuable stories about how even if the difference we make feels small, it still means something.

One story was about a starfish. A woman saw tons of starfish on the beach and threw them back in the water one by one. Someone else mentioned that it would take her forever to put all of the starfish back and that she probably wouldn't get to them all, so why bother? But the girl throwing the starfish back knew better. She knew she couldn't solve the problem completely, but that she could make a difference, so she did. She knew she made a difference for the starfish she was able to help, and that was enough for her.

I see many of these starfish in my life. I see people who have endured trauma, lost jobs, and felt great loss. I cannot change what happened to them, nor can I help every single person. However, I can talk to those I know. I can listen when they need me to. This is something each and every one of us can do, and through that, we reach more people than we realize.

Another story was about people who kept falling downstream. A man saw them falling downstream and took them back upstream, similar to the woman who saw the starfish and threw them back, one by one. The man saving the people was doing a good thing and making a difference, and there's nothing wrong with that. However, what's causing all of these people to fall downstream? Fixing the problem up top may be a more effective and long-lasting solution.

I believe this is where prevention comes in. This is where we lead sensitivity and skills-based trainings; this where we look at the systemic problem underlying the hurt that we see and work to address that specifically.

However, metaphorically speaking, when we're throwing back starfish and keeping people from falling downstream, we have to remember that while these creatures are the same species, they all have unique backgrounds and stories. They know they're themselves more than we do, and by ignoring those differences, we aren't truly helping in a culturally sensitive and effective way.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an author and speaker, spoke about the danger of the single story in a TEDTalk. "The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete; they make one story the only story," she said.

She discussed how she created a single story about a family friend as simply poor, and how her roommate figured that she listened to "tribal music" rather than Mariah Carey. She discussed how people feel a disconnect from each other in which they fail to see how they are connected, similar, equal human beings. She talked about how we can't talk about the concept of the single story without talking about power -- who's telling the story, how many times it's told, how we view the person telling the story, and other aspects of that nature.

"The consequence of the single story is this. It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of equal humanity difficult," Adichie said.

When we treat people like one characteristic, one stereotype, or one issue, we forget all of the other factors at play and don't appreciate them as full human beings. This is a disservice both to them and to us.

As a woman named Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen wrote about in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal, we must serve rather than help. We must feel empathy for those we support, realizing we are similar and that we have struggled ourselves. We are whole, as are those we serve.

We're all the starfish and the people falling downstream, the family friend and the roommate. We must remember this when we find ourselves on the other side.

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To The Nursing Major During The Hardest Week Of The Year

I know that no grade can possibly prove what kind of nurse you will be. I know that no assignment will showcase your compassion. I know that no amount of bad days will ever take away the empathy inside of you that makes you an exceptional nurse.


To the Nursing Major During Finals Week,

I know you're tired, I know you're stressed, and I know you feel like you can't go on. I know that no part of this seems fair, and I know you are by far the biggest critic of yourself. I know that you've thought about giving up. I know that you feel alone. I know that you wonder why in the world you chose one of the hardest college majors, especially on the days it leaves you feeling empty and broken.

But, I also know that you love nursing school. I know your eyes light up when you're with patients, and I know your heart races when you think of graduation. I know that you love the people that you're in school with, like truly, we're-all-in-this-together, family type of love. I know that you look at the older nurses with admiration, just hoping and praying that you will remain that calm and composed one day. I know that every time someone asks what your college major is that you beam with pride as you tell them it's nursing, and I know that your heart skips a beat knowing that you are making a difference.

I know that no grade can possibly prove what kind of nurse you will be. I know that no assignment will showcase your compassion. I know that a failed class doesn't mean you aren't meant to do this. I know that a 'C' on a test that you studied so. dang. hard. for does not mean that you are not intelligent. I know that no amount of bad days will ever take away the empathy inside of you that makes you an exceptional nurse.

I know that nursing school isn't fair. I know you wish it was easier. I know that some days you can't remember why it's worth it. I know you want to go out and have fun. I know that staying up until 1:00 A.M. doing paperwork, only to have to be up and at clinicals before the sun rises is not fair. I know that studying this much only to be failing the class is hard. I know you wish your friends and family understood. I know that this is difficult.

Nursing school isn't glamorous, with the white lab coat and stethoscope. Nursing school is crying, randomly and a lot. Nursing school is exhaustion. Nursing school is drinking so much coffee that you lose track. Nursing school is being so stressed that you can't eat. Nursing school is four cumulative finals jam-packed into one week that is enough to make you go insane.

But, nursing school is worth it. I know that when these assignments are turned in and finals are over, that you will find the motivation to keep going. I know that one good day of making a difference in a patient's life is worth a hundred bad days of nursing school.

Keep hanging in there, nursing majors. It'll all be worth it— this I know, for sure.

So, if you have a nursing major in your life, hug them and tell them that you're proud of them. Nursing school is tough, nursing school is scary, and nursing school is overwhelming; but a simple 'thank-you' from someone we love is all we need to keep going.


A third-year nursing student who knows

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To The High School Graduating Seniors

I know you're ready, but be ready.



I am not going to say anything about senioritis because I was ready to get out of there and I'm sure you are too; however, in your last months living at home you should take advantage of the luxuries you will not have in a college dorm. The part of college seen in movies is great, the rest of it is incredibly inconvenient. It is better to come to terms with this While you still have plenty of time to prepare and enjoy yourself.

Perhaps one of the most annoying examples is the shower. Enjoy your hot, barefoot showers now because soon enough you will have no water pressure and a drain clogged with other people's hair. Enjoy touching your feet to the floor in the shower and the bathroom because though it seems weird, it's a small thing taken away from you in college when you have to wear shoes everywhere.

Enjoy your last summer with your friends. After this summer, any free time you take is a sacrifice. For example, if you want to go home for the summer after your freshman year and be with your friends, you have to sacrifice an internship. If you sacrifice an internship, you risk falling behind on your resume, and so on. I'm not saying you can't do that, but it is not an easy choice anymore.

Get organized. If you're like me you probably got good grades in high school by relying on your own mind. You think I can remember what I have to do for tomorrow. In college, it is much more difficult to live by memory. There are classes that only meet once or twice a week and meeting and appointments in between that are impossible to mentally keep straight. If you do not yet have an organizational system that works for you, get one.

I do not mean to sound pessimistic about school. College is great and you will meet a lot of people and make a lot of memories that will stick with you for most of your life. I'm just saying be ready.

-A freshman drowning in work

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