Friday, October 13, 2006

It Makes a Difference to This One

There's this story I heard in church. Every day at sunset, a man walks out onto his balcony which overlooks the ocean. The tide has begun to retreat by that time and the beach is always littered with starfish that will die if they are not thrown back into the water. One day, during this man's usual time on his balcony, he looks out and sees another man walking across the beach and randomly throwing starfish back into the ocean. The man thinks, This guy is crazy - he'll never save all those starfish!. Nevertheless, each afternoon from that day forward, when the man walks onto his balcony, he sees the other man throwing starfish back into the ocean. This drives him crazy and, one day, when he couldn't stand it anymore, he leaves his balcony and walks down to the beach. When he approaches the other man, he says, "You're crazy! There's too many of them and you can't save them all. Why are you here when what you're doing doesn't make a difference?" And the other man replied, indicating the starfish he was holding, "It makes a difference to this one."

I try to remember that story when I get overwhelmed with my client work. After one particularly grueling day, I stopped at the grocery store during my walk home. In front of me at the checkout was an hispanic woman with an S curve to her spine that could have sponsored an episode of Sesame Street. All this woman was buying was an eight-pack of Jell-O. Unfortunately, she had $3.25 and the package cost $3.75. The cashier told her that if it were only a matter of a couple cents, it would be alright, but the $.50 difference was too much. He couldn't sell her that Jell-O, and if she still wanted some she'd have to go back to where she got it and pick up a smaller package. The woman didn't speak any english. The cashier took her to another cashier who spoke spanish to explain the situation. It would have been easy for me to just give her $.50. From the shape she was in, it looked likely that she hadn't eaten well her entire life, and she looked as if she was well into her 60s by now. But instead, I just stood there behind the lady watching her confusion and probable humiliation and just did nothing, despite the thoughts in my head that urged me to just hand over the $.50 now, give it to the cashier now, before it's too late!

After spending a day putting out fires for clients on the verge of losing their homes because welfare screws up their benefits, I just didn't have it in me anymore, not even enough to just reach into my pocket and pull out some change. So I try to find comfort in the starfish story. But it doesn't always work.

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