We are overwhelmed. And how could we not be during this time of anger and hatred, terror and fear, doubt and uncertainty? The current state of affairs, when viewed in its entirety, is simply too much to absorb. The forest is so scary as a whole that we’re not seeing the trees. But we need to see the trees.
When I used to volunteer much of my time for animal rescue, I learned a lesson that was an important one for my sanity. Anybody who does work of this kind – feeding the hungry, clothing the homeless, finding homes for shelter animals, etc. – can tell you how overwhelming it all can be. It’s the endlessness of it all. You help one, and another hundred are there to fill the empty place. It’s like trying to dam a flood with a tea towel.
The lesson I learned and took to heart was the parable of the starfish. You’ve likely heard it, but if not, here’s its summation.
An old man is walking along the beach, when he sees a young boy throwing something into the water. As he gets closer, he sees that the boy is running around, trying to rescue starfish that have been brought in with the tide. As the boy rushes around, throwing the starfish back in the water to save them, the old man laughs at him and asks him why he’s bothering. With hundreds of starfish washed up, the boy can’t possibly save them all: He can’t possibly make a difference. The boy continues to throw the starfish into the water and after his latest one, he looks up at the man and says, “It made a difference to that one.”
I wear a necklace with a starfish charm on it quite often, to represent this parable and my outlook on life. I know that I am but one person, but I do my best to make a difference when and where I can. With every animal I helped get adopted – the cat found tied up to somebody’s car’s side mirror when they came out of the supermarket, the dog thrown out the car window on a local highway ramp, the Chihuahua with the cigarette burns on his body – I learned not to focus on the ones still in the cages, clamoring to be heard, but the ones going out the door to what I hoped would be happy, permanent homes. (I also learned to try not to focus on the assholes who harmed the animals, which is always a much harder lesson to learn).
Along these lines, in our home we do what we can to help others all year round. We donate at least one turkey dinner to the local food pantry, in the hopes of making somebody’s Thanksgiving a little more thankful. We sponsor at least one child at the holiday season; more if our funds allow. I don’t care what the child’s religion is, nor what God they do or don’t worship. My only concern is giving them a little happiness; keeping alive the flame of their hope and faith in a kinder world. We participate in food drives, book drives, clothing drives, and so much more.
No one person can save the world. Nor can we help everyone in it. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, one by one, to do our part.
The trick is to stop focusing on the big picture and focus instead on the smaller stories that exist within it. Humans of New York photographer and creator Brandon Stanton demonstrates this perfectly, with his focus on individuals that presents us with their humanity, their individual thoughts, feelings and dreams. Watch a video, like this one, of the Syrian refugees, and understand that they are not trying to make their way to our countries in order to spread hate. How could you doubt that any of these children will be anything but forever grateful to the people and countries that gave them a new, better life than the one their families fled in terror? Focus on their faces; focus on the starfish.
Bridge that gap between Us and Them. We can demonize, hunt down and punish the terrorists without de-humanizing the refugees. We can open our doors and borders to those looking to live in peace. We can put an entry program in place to secure our safety and their future. We can do this; it can be done. We can look at the trees and see them individually without burning down the whole damn forest.
So save a starfish. Hug a tree. Hold onto the best parts of yourself that make you human.