“Be good!” my mom shouted as I ran out the door to play one summer morning, and I’ve been trying ever since.
I’m good at following rules, I’ve found out. I’m good at staying out of trouble. I’m even good at helping others—but the goodness at the core of all that, I’m still working on.
There’s a fable I’m sure you’ve heard that begins with a young boy standing on a beach. The beach is choked with suffocating starfish, and the boy is tossing them, one by one, back into the waves.
Someone finds him at the task and, eyeing the thousands of prickly creatures still waiting to be helped, tells him, “You’ll never make a difference.”
“Oh,” says the boy, precious, precocious (very Chicken Soup for the Soul), “but it made a difference to that one.”
I hate this story.
I identify neither with the boy nor the cynic questioning him. Instead, I’m staring at the starfish, convinced that if they so desperately need to return to the water there is so much more that we can do.
As the hero of this story, I would put out the alert on social media, develop a communications plan. I would gather the masses, create a starfish throwing coalition. We would have someone analyzing water samples, someone studying tides. We would have someone calculating the optimum starfish-throwing arc. And we would stand ankle-deep in the waves, tossing those prickly beasts five arms at a time until the beaches were clear.
I’m not going to take this metaphor any further—I’m uncomfortable enough with an example that comes close to equating vulnerable people with brainless invertebrates.
I’ll say this, though. I’m more comfortable with a clipboard than with a starfish in my hands.
I’ll say this too—as I think of a thousand better ways to help, I haven’t even made it to the beach.
When I realize this, I don’t think I’m a good person.
But that boy, the one who lifts each sea star individually, weighing it in his hand, marveling at it, recognizing it—is he?
Who gets to be good?
The other day I met a new friend for coffee, and the conversation fell, as it does, to women in church leadership (I guess I’ve never been one for light chit-chat). He was against it, I was surprised to learn—vehemently.
“God made men and women different,” he said stubbornly, though not unkindly, “And besides, what happens when for four or five days every month…?”
He must have seen my eyes roll out of my head because he stopped that line of thought and continued down a different one.
I share this story not because the conversation was particularly enlightening or even different from what I’ve heard a thousand times before. I tell it because this conversation shook my concept that this new friend was a “good person.”
He’s more than a good person, though—this man is a Mother Theresa. His idea of a nice weekend is building houses for the homeless and sharing salted tortillas with a family living in poverty. He’s someone who has sacrificed comfort for a life of service without expecting anything in return.
I respected his work. I admired his dedication. I found his stereotypes about gender wrongheaded and offensive.
Has anyone else felt this tension? Maybe you’re welcomed with a bear hug to a cozy home where a jaw-droppingly racist comment will be passed with dessert. Maybe denial about creation care is coming from the same people who lovingly taught you to leave every place cleaner than you found it.
How can people with views I find abhorrent be so warm and generous? How can they seem so much better than I am at my best times?
I think my new friend is like the boy on the beach. I think a lot of people are. They do good things with great love. Their strength isn’t sustainability or scale. It’s a moral pull to put others before themselves, to rescue that single starfish—even if sometimes those well-intentioned actions coincide with prejudices and gaping blind spots.
Meanwhile, I’ve got my thinking sorted out. I’ve got passionate opinions and oh, they’re the correct ones. I’ve got big ideas, but maybe I’ve let my systemic thoughts crowd out my moral ones. I get lost thinking of the thousand starfish and forget the miracle of the single one that was saved.
Maybe—and this is hard to admit—I care more about the plight of The Poor than about individuals in poverty with names and faces, each with different dreams.
I want to be effective. I’m not giving up my clipboard. But I recognize that my conception of what it means to be good, to be just, to be neighborly in the midst of need, is missing something. I recognize also that this missing piece can sometimes be found in the lives of the same people I’m used to disagreeing with.
I still want to change their minds about some big things. But in exchange I wonder if they can help me learn to do things that makes no sense, that don’t scale, that aren’t logical or practical, but are good.
(Whatever that word means anyway.)
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).