Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.
Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching. As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”
The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”
Adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)
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Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had gotten that job as a teacher at the municipal college in the rural countryside; or that other job as an maintain-it-all engineer at the boarding school for underprivileged kids along the southern coast. At that time, it all made sense. After having taught basic car maintenance to gang-prone teens, or having helped senior citizens to get their high school diploma, the next step was quite clear. At that time, saving the world was more that a genuine good intention: it was my purpose in life.
Years went by and I never received the phone call telling me that the world needed me as much as I needed to feel I could be useful; that I could make a difference. So college ended, and before I could fully realize, the corporate world had swallowed me. Pragmatic, immediate, appealing, it has the power to embrace you until it’s you that can’t let it go. No regrets, though. It has allowed me to grow through the minds and the hearts of the hundreds of people I’ve had the privilege to work with. It has given me the opportunity to sometimes fail, and to learn from it as the very basic fabric of any possible form of success. It has also helped me to keep the flame burning and, in a way, save the world through little tiny actions that can potentially make a difference in someone. And I’m deeply thankful for that.
It’s amazing to think what a huge distance a simple deviation in the compass can create over the years. Who knows how different my life would be if I had received that phone call I so much wanted to. But truth is it’s completely irrelevant. Call it fate, karma, or just a unique and unrepeatable accumulation of good and bad choices, we are whom we’ve decided (and worked for) to be, nothing more, nothing less. And wherever across the pragmatism-to-idealism spectrum we’ve decided to place our life at, I guess we all have to have a greater good to dedicate our life to, yet also some kind of decent income source to make ends meet and hopefully have a surplus to fuel the efforts. We cannot live our lives without ideals as much as we cannot do it purely from ideals. Delicate balance that it’s easier said than done, but that I’m sure it’s worth at least a conscious try.