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."

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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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Working With People Who Are Dying Teaches You So Much About How To Live

Spending time with hospice patients taught me about the art of dying.

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Death is a difficult subject.

It is addressed differently across cultures, lifestyles, and religions, and it can be difficult to find the right words to say when in the company of someone who is dying. I have spent a lot of time working with hospice patients, and I bore witness to the varying degrees of memory loss and cognitive decline that accompany aging and disease.

The patients I worked with had diverse stories and interests, and although we might have had some trouble understanding each other, we found ways to communicate that transcended any typical conversation.

I especially learned a lot from patients severely affected by dementia.

They spoke in riddles, but their emotions were clearly communicated through their facial expressions and general demeanor, which told a story all on their own.

We would connect through smiles and short phrases, yes or no questions, but more often than not, their minds were in another place. Some patients would repeat the details of the same event, over and over, with varying levels of detail each time.

Others would revert to a child-like state, wondering about their parents, about school, and about family and friends they hadn't seen in a long time.

I often wondered why their minds chose to wander to a certain event or time period and leave them stranded there before the end of their life. Was an emotionally salient event reinforcing itself in their memories?

Was their subconscious trying to reconnect with people from their past? All I could do was agree and follow their lead because the last thing I wanted to do was break their pleasant memory.

I felt honored to be able to spend time with them, but I couldn't shake the feeling that I was intruding on their final moments, moments that might be better spent with family and loved ones. I didn't know them in their life, so I wondered how they benefited from my presence in their death.

However, after learning that several of the patients I visited didn't have anyone to come to see them, I began to cherish every moment spent, whether it was in laughter or in tears. Several of the patients never remembered me. Each week, I was a new person, and each week they had a different variation of the same story that they needed to tell me.

In a way, it might have made it easier to start fresh every week rather than to grow attached to a person they would soon leave.

Usually, the stories were light-hearted.

They were reliving a memory or experiencing life again as if it were the first time, but as the end draws nearer, a drastic shift in mood and demeanor is evident.

A patient who was once friendly and jolly can quickly become quiet, reflective, and despondent. I've seen patients break down and cry, not because of their current situation, but because they were mourning old ones. These times taught me a lot about how to be just what that person needs towards the end of their life.

I didn't need to understand why they were upset or what they wanted to say.

The somber tone and tired eyes let me know that what they had to say was important and worth hearing. What mattered most is that someone who cared was there to hear it.

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A Few Birthday Thoughts

Goodbye teenage years, hello twenties!

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So, it is looking like I am about to leave my teenage years behind. I think that I want to reflect back on this time in my life and think about what I want to keep with me in my twenties and maybe some things I can let go. My teenage years have been full of love from my family and friends; hard work to make good grades in school and creating art. I developed several great friendships that I have held on to across the miles even though I went to college 14 hours away from our previous home. I am so thankful for the friendships I have made in college as well.

It seems like friends you make in your childhood and younger years can really stand the test of time. Maybe it is because when you became friends you were truly who you were. Everyone was genuine and didn't put up walls to protect themselves. You got to know someone on a deeper more personal level more quickly than if you had met later in life. I also think we laughed even more as children and that always creates good memories to look back on. So I think in my twenties I will try to hang on to the "childish" way of making friends. I will try to show my true self and will accept them for who they are, and we will laugh....a lot.

I think a good thing to let go of is always trying to make dead-end relationships work. When we were children on the playground and we tried to play a game together or jump rope and it just wasn't working, we would run off and find someone else. It was easy. It was just natural. Now sometimes I find myself trying to stay in a relationship by being overly nice, giving gifts, trying to find what pushes the persons "good" buttons. I might spend so much time trying to figure this person out that I leave out more solid relationships that are worth my time. So in my twenties, I will try to be more realistic about who to spend my time on. Some people are just never going to stand the test of time. I can continue to be cordial but won't let them rule my time and thought life.

As children, we loved our parents and siblings and would show love to them in a myriad of ways. Maybe it was hugs, pictures on the fridge, good night kisses, playing games, or just quality time spent together as a family. Starting my twenties, I am mature enough to realize the value of these people in my life. Thankfully, I have always known this. I was never the type that was embarrassed if someone saw me walking with my Mom or Dad or being dropped off in the Mom Van somewhere. I always knew these people loved me more than anyone else I was about to meet. But in my twenties, I plan to keep up with my family even when I am eight hours away from them. We are never too old to need the love of family.

As weird as it is to say goodbye to my teenage years, it's honestly helped me to soak in the precious moments of everyday life and treasure them even more. Every year when birthdays come around, it always serves as a reminder how quickly the days, months, and years fly by. I think that has been one difficult part of this birthday season. It's hard to say goodbye to the past, without a clear map of the future. But, I must remind myself that this is why growing up is a beautiful thing- as we live life and experience new things, we are better prepared for what the future may hold. Everything that I have experienced in my 20 years has served an important purpose- to make me into the person I am supposed to become. Yes, life is always changing and so am I... and change can be hard. Very hard. But one thing to remember is God is always constant. He will never change. No matter what number is on your birthday cake, He is always there...the same God yesterday, today and tomorrow. He is the Rock that we will always be able to cling to. Isn't that a wonderful thought? Even if we don't know what's in His plans for us in the coming year, it's important to make Him a part of our plans. Rather than worry about change, let's embrace it all- the good and the bad- and look to the Lord to see how He will guide and shape us.

Teenage years- the time has come. I must say goodbye to you now. But, you will never be forgotten. I will hold your memories in my heart forever. Twenties- I am excited for all that awaits me.

"Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go." - Joshua 1:9

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