Listen to a reading of this story.
A man walking along the beach came upon a boy picking up starfish and throwing them into the water.
“What are you doing?” the man asked him.
“I’m throwing these starfish back into the sea,” the boy answered. “The tide’s gone out and they’ll cook in the sun if I don’t help them.”
“But there are miles and miles of beach and countless starfish in every mile,” said the man. “You can’t possibly make any difference!”
The boy listened politely, then picked up another starfish and tossed it into the surf.
“Made a difference to that one,” he said to the man.
“I mean that’s a cute answer and all,” said the man. “It would fit nicely in a Facebook meme shared by your religious aunty, or a motivational speech from the early nineties. But in the grand scheme of things you must surely understand that saving that one starfish is of no real significance? The tide will go out again tomorrow, and this beach will once again be lined with dying starfish just as it is now, among them quite likely our little friend you just rescued.”
“What do you want me to say man?” the boy replied, his tone suddenly changing. “That there’s some kind of eternally ordained metaphysical justification for my actions here on this beach today? That there’s some absolute truth inscribed upon the fabric of reality from on high saying ‘One saved starfish equals one Ultimate Meaningfulness?’ On what basis are you premising your assumption that any actions have any meaning or purpose at all?”
“I- I- Well…” the man stammered.
The boy began to grow larger, and as he spoke his skin turned an otherworldly shade of blue.
“Do you have any idea how vast the universe is? How ancient it is? How ephemeral it is?” asked the boy. “How can you claim to take any action that makes any ultimate difference whatsoever when you and everything you’ve ever known is nothing but an infinitely small blip in the middle of a yawning expanse of infinity?”
“Who- who are you?” the man asked.
A second pair of blue arms sprouted from the boy’s torso. His voice thundered as he towered over the man.
“Who am I?? Who are you?” the boy responded. “Who do you think you are exactly? Who are you to go around proclaiming what actions possess significance and which do not? You’ve been around, what? Sixty years? You’re a zygote. You’re a fruit fly. The very thing you think of as yourself is no more substantial than a wisp of sea foam, and as far as the universe is concerned you have essentially the same lifespan. You’re nothing but a loosely associated cloud of cells swirling around for a short time in inseparable interplay with the ecosystem which birthed it on a tiny planet in the outer periphery of a galaxy which in the grand scheme of things is scarcely older than you are. You’re a little eddie twirling in the middle of the ocean for a single instant, and you presume yourself so wise and authoritative that you can pass out decrees on the meaningfulness of the life of a starfish? You presume yourself any more important or significant than any one of these starfish on the sand?”
“I’m sorry!” the man said, falling to his knees in terror. “I meant no offense!”
The world fell away as the boy’s hulking frame came apart and transformed into billions of galaxies spinning against a backdrop of infinite blackness.
“The universe expands and contracts within me like the air in your lungs,” the boy said. “Each Big Bang in every universe unleashes a new dance of swirling energy which turns into increasingly complex iterations of matter as it expands, it achieves peaks of dazzling beauty the likes of which your young primate mind cannot even imagine, then it grows cold and collapses in on itself once again. Again and again I birth infinite universes into existence; they bloom and die within me like flowers in the illusory appearance of time. Not one of those universes ever matters. Not one of them ever makes any ultimate difference. The life of a single starfish has the same net worth as the entire lifespan of this entire universe.”
“Then why bother?” asked the man, suddenly finding some courage. “If nothing means anything and nothing matters, why create any of this?”
“Same reason I sometimes throw starfish back into the ocean,” said the boy.
“Which is what?”
“You were married, yes?” the boy asked in response.
“Yes,” said the man, taken aback. “She died recently.”
“Did you love her?”
“Yes. Very much.”
“Ever tell her so?”
“Yes. Many times.”
“Ever do nice things for her?”
“Why… because I loved her. There was no other reason.”
“Yeah, well, same here.”
“You love all these universes you create?”
“Then why do you let them die? Why do you let them be imperfect? Motherfucker, why do you let cancer exist??”
“That’s not how love works, man. Love doesn’t seek to dominate or control. Real love loves everything just as it is, however it shows up. You loved your wife just as much when her body was racked with cancer as you did the day you were married, even when she was rail thin and had trouble staying awake because of the morphine. Real love doesn’t reject what is; it’s a deep and unconditional yes. And of course that yes can include surgery and chemotherapy. It can also include throwing starfish back into the sea. But the yes is always there, if you can get past all the head noise and notice it.”
The man blinked back tears and looked away. “It really, really hurts sometimes.”
“Yes,” said the boy. “From every Big Bang there emerge movements of every possible form. These movements can include pain. And cancer. They can also include serial killers, ecocide, oligarchs and warmongers. These things are all part of the swirling ongoing explosion of this universe. They’re all little curlicues in the movement of its energy, just like sea foam on the waves. And they are all fully, entirely beloved, just as they are. No part of the cosmic dance is rejected. Every part is embraced. And when it all goes, that going is embraced as well, and so is the pain of the loss.”
“But what am I meant to do with all this?” asked the man. “You say nothing matters and nothing means anything, and right now at this point in my life it definitely feels like that. But then how am I meant to live? How am I meant to go on? How am I meant to act in the world when nothing makes any real difference?”
“Dammit man, have you not listened to a word I just said?” asked the boy. “Either be a lover of life or don’t. Either throw yourself into gratuitous acts of love or don’t. It doesn’t matter either way. Your every molecule is perfectly beloved no matter what you do. You know what it is to love a woman, and you can learn what it is to love life if you want. Up to you.”
“I… was going to throw myself off the seacliff. That’s where I was headed.”
“You still can if you want to.”
“Oh. Hmm. Huh.”
The world reappeared. The boy stood before the man, his normal boy size, with the normal boy number of arms.
The boy looked deep into the man’s eyes and placed his hand on his chest, then turned and went back to throwing starfish into the waves.
The man watched the boy work, then turned his eyes to the seacliff in the distance, then back again to the boy.
“Ehh, low tide anyway” said the man, bending over to pick up a starfish.
My work is entirely reader-supported, so if you enjoyed this piece please consider sharing it around, following me on Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud or YouTube, or throwing some money into my tip jar on Ko-fi, Patreon or Paypal. If you want to read more you can buy my books. The best way to make sure you see the stuff I publish is to subscribe to the mailing list for at my website or on Substack, which will get you an email notification for everything I publish. Everyone, racist platforms excluded, has my permission to republish, use or translate any part of this work (or anything else I’ve written) in any way they like free of charge. For more info on who I am, where I stand, and what I’m trying to do with this platform, click here.
Wolfgang Seidel-Guyenot / April 10, 2022
A wonderful story. Herman Hesse wuld have loved it.
ficus / December 17, 2021
Your starfish parable is BEAUTIFUL and caused me to horripilate!
Dom / December 7, 2021
Der Caitlin, I’ve just finished reading your beautiful poem on the German Website “Rubikon.de” Many thanks for your words, you’ve really made my day in these dark times. And I honestly would like to hug you for it. Sending you much love from Germany!
Theresa Barzee / October 27, 2021
Thank you, dearest writer. I very often think of this sweet poignant tale, my own way, inside.
It helps. Marshal Rosenberg would say, “only do as I ask if you can do it with the generosity of a three year old at the lake feeding hungry ducks.”
Jonathan Pratt / October 27, 2021
Some of us are struggling through what it means to ACTUALLY save a starfish, not “Try,” and not “do whatever seems helpful and muddle forward with that.” It is always possible that the next NECESSARY step takes three times my life savings and is harder than I can fathom. But this is no reason to simply take the next available step, whether it be effective or not.
These are indeed hard things to fight through. But this is a warrior’s path. No one said it would be easy. Equanimity about death helps.
Steve hohensee / October 26, 2021
Without doubt, unselfish love (agape) is good. To love “everything” is even better. To feel compassion, understanding and love for the person of a serial killer is saintly. One can imagine a warped childhood, internal torment, guilt, and mental illness which drives the killer. But why extend love to the serial killer’s behavior?
The more powerful gods in human history tend to be authoritarian, tribal, arbitrary, play favorites, and usually have a mean streak. For example, mainstream Buddhism tells us that not only is there hell, there are many different hells. I once listened to Thich Nhat Hanh explain in an interview that people who sow dissent among monks are headed for avici hell, the deepest and most terrible of Buddhist hells.
As other posters suggest, is it not evil that an omnipotent god created a world where “some” starfish die on the beach? The Christian Church (and presumably Thich Nhat Hanh as well), not to mention many other religions, define evil in terms of disobedience to religious authority and dogma. “Good” in such religions means that everything god does, ipso facto, is good. I think a more reasonable definition of “evil” is “to cause unnecessary suffering”. Why is it necessary that god causes starfish to suffer?
Stuart Ross / October 26, 2021
Excellent response, Steve.
Rosemary Nisse-Wade / October 25, 2021
Rick / October 25, 2021
So wise, so beautiful. Thanks Caitlin.
Jupiter / October 25, 2021
Let’s not get to carried away…. The BJP has a lot answer for . And all these other Dowry deaths women being burnt alive the list goes on
Christoph / October 25, 2021
The trouble with “love”, especially in the way that word is used in the english language, is that people can love all kinds of things, like money, power, cruelty and most of all deliberate ignorance.
The parabel correctly describes some of our limitations and i think eventually the magnitude and complexity of the universe only SEEM to put us into perspective.
We can only act within our own perception and within the rationale we have developed. I choose to expand my understanding of the things within my reach and think that it is the right thing to do in order to leave a place for others to do the same. On the other hand i strongly believe, that interfering with the choices of others is a root problem of our society and we should try to accept other peoples choices however wrong we may think they are. Laissez faire as the french say.
But exchanging thoughts and ideas is clearly an important part of enabling a wider perspective.
(On a side note: What does this tell you about the insane concept of intellectual property?)
Johnny / October 25, 2021
Ain’t Love Christoph.
Love has no object.
It just IS.
Christoph / October 25, 2021
I know, i am being terribly unromantic here, but in my perception of the world, Love is a vector. It has an origin, a direction and a dimension.
I see what Caity is trying to say here and i mostly agree, but i also believe, that insight is gained through discourse and just applauding doesn’t advance ones mind.
I have mostly dropped the “vastness of universe” and “love will save us” ideas, because they lead to mental loops and don’t really help too much in everyday life.
My current train of thought circles around “How can we stop people from calling everyone else dumb, because that obviously leads to fascism” and “How do we stop [We need to do something]”.
Johnny / October 25, 2021
That’s the funny thing about Truth.
It takes no prisoners:
Rick Pursell / October 25, 2021
From one who has told the little story so many times, and been on the seacliff, you have embraced the magnificent, expansiveness of our existence, from your awakened perspective, Caitlin.
Thank you for this profound reminder.
Not without tears of recognition of our own duality, I might add.
And in the scheme of things, unfolding within the countless universes, those tears pale into insignificance, reinforced by our true identity, inseparable from all else.
Josh / October 25, 2021
If genuine Good had ever fully departed our world,
Then, there would not be such a thing as our world at this time.
Just look at the two asteroid belts in this star system that used to be planets, if you have any doubts.
Josh / October 25, 2021
You want to hear a cool song?
Check out Avicii’s ‘Wake Me Up’.
It’s on spotify, youtube, ilovemusic, pretty much all of them…
Josh / October 25, 2021
I have to say that this one is not your normal style.
I mean that it is not of the same pattern as the writings that you make on your own.
Not that it isn’t good, because it is more or less well put together,
But, there’s something else there too…
Roundball Shaman / October 24, 2021
Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”
So it is with finding meaning in Universe. (Beauty, as well).
If one believes that Life is meaningful, or if one believes that Life is meaningless… both persons will be right. For their self.
Universe morphs into what you expect of it. You will always get what you really want (from the deepest part of your beliefs and expectations). You can’t help it. You can’t game or fool the System of Universe.
And then Universe smiles and winks at you once you’ve made your choices and says ‘I hope you enjoyed it’.
Allan / October 24, 2021
Goosebumps and a wet eye, Caitlin….thank you. Truth. <3
Toni Roberts / October 24, 2021
Thank you for putting it all together. I’m saving it and sharing widely. “Real love doesn’t reject what is . . .” Of course.
Eric F / October 24, 2021
Thanks Caitlin, this is a great expansion of that old story.
I always have to wonder though, when I hear that story:
How is it that a species as old as starfish (or sand dollars in another telling) rely on humans happening by to save them?
Those starfish have adapted to their environment for millions of years, and I can’t bring myself to believe that they are so ill-equipped for their environment that they would put themselves at risk of death by something as mundane (and regularly occurring) as a low tide.
Not to rain on your story, which is great, given the set-up.
And speaking of rain, I’m reminded of worm suicides on sunny sidewalks after a rain. For which I blame the human-made sidewalk rather than the instincts of the worms.
Thanks for keeping on!
S. Black / October 24, 2021
Whew. Mindbogglingly beautiful, young seer. I’m sending it on to two of my favorite people, both of whom are suffering way more than they deserve to.
Joshua / October 24, 2021
Quite a glimpse there.
Was that just one?
Frank Thompson / October 24, 2021
Disrespect for the sea turns back on humanity. https://youtu.be/M8S55Lbr1yA
Frank Thompson / October 24, 2021
Apologies for not labeling the link.
It is to a short video about the growth of sargassum, a group of species of macroalgae that has bloomed profusely in the warming waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea amid the increased nitrogen levels from fertilizer runoff and waste discharge into the ocean. It recently caused the shutdown of an electrical generating plant in Puerto Rico when it clogged the water intake filters, which are normally cleaned only once or twice a year. The Aguirre Power Plant is fired by heavy fuel oil and diesel fuel. Here is a link to a news story about the “event” at the power plant:
Pascal / October 24, 2021
As Bob Dylan puts it, “it’s alright Ma, it’s life and life only”.
Rayofhope / October 24, 2021
Bhagavad Gita was taught by Lord Krishna to warrior prince Arjuna at the beginning of the final fratricidal civil war between the cousins, more than 5,000 years ago in India(India was called Bharat in those days). Arjuna belongs to the side for whom knowing and doing what is Right is primary (Follower of Dharma). For them (Pandavas), Ends never justify the Means. Only the Right Means are important. For the people on the other side of the battle field (Kauravas), knowing and doing what is Right do not mean anything. Greed, Power, Control, and manipulation to attain the goals are all that matter. For them Ends justify the Means (They follow Adharma, opposite of Dharma).
Bhagavad Gita, consisting of more the 700 Sanskrit verses is the Crown Jewel within Maha Bharata, largest Epic story available to the humanity, consisting of 100,000 verses.
In the 11th Chapter of Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asks Lord Krishna to show his Universal form, Vishwa Rupa. Lord Krishna gradually expands to attain the Universal form, you described. After Glorifying Lord Krishna, Arjuna became fearful, as he failed to include himself within the Universal form of the Lord. After further Teaching, at the end of 18th Chapter, when, Arjuna see himself also as the Limitless Consciousness, ultimate cause of the Birth, Sustenance and Resolution of this cyclical Universe (including of body and mind), his sadness and fear disappear. When he understands that what is Right (Dharma) is the only reason worth fighting for, he picks up his Gandiva (Might bow), and fights the terrible battle and wins with the help of his Charioteer, Lord Krishna. Blue skin of Lord Krishna is Symbolic of the Limitless Sky, which itself is symbolic of Limitless Consciousness.
You are also an amazing warrior Caitlin. Thank you for your boundless courage for doing what you and your husband are doing. I pray to Lord Krishna to keep you and your husband in good physical, mental and Spiritual health to fight this modern Maha Bharata war, along with others like you who are fighting for Dharma in this world. The struggle has to continue until Dharma wins, which always does in the end. We collectively do this by picking one starfish at a time.
Lorraine S Jarvi / October 24, 2021
Oh, Caitlin. This is such a sad, sad, commentary on where your head is at. You want to be the ultimate source of meaning? Really? Good luck with that. All you are is a lost soul spitting into a wind, and you haven’t got a clue from whence the wind comes. I think you are brave, articulate, and gifted with enough self-honesty to get past this stage. I look forward to hearing from that Caitlin!
Newton E. Finn / October 24, 2021
This is a deep and lovely piece, and I thank Caitlin for it, but it prompts a few questions. If “(r)eal love loves everything just as it is, however it shows up,” then how is it that the PTB, who also just showed up, should be condemned, if not hated, right here on this blog, as psychopaths, sociopaths, etc.? Surely they lack love, but if that’s how they showed up or have come to show up, who are we to disparage or despise them for that lack? Aren’t they, the PTB, merely doing their thing, stranding starfish on the beach, while others choose to toss them back? And isn’t it then, the stranding and the saving, “all good” as they say these days? If this is the ultimate context of everything, if “it doesn’t matter either way,” what are we so worked up about, we starfish rescuers?
Caitlin Johnstone (Author) / October 25, 2021
Real love also loves fierce opposition, same as it loves chemotherapy and throwing starfish back into the ocean. Nothing is rejected, including forceful rejection.
Newton E. Finn / October 25, 2021
I greatly appreciate the response, Caitlin, but it raises another question. Does “real love” also enjoy–or at least tolerate–the “fierce opposition” of the PTB to the flourishing of all living things? Schweitzer observed how the spiritual can come to subsume/consume the ethical. In a famous scene from the Gita, for example, and obviously in numerous scenes from the OT, the slaughter of human beings is sanctioned so long as done according to the will of the god. I know this is not what you mean to say in this strikingly beautiful essay–you’ve said the opposite a million times–but doesn’t some of its lyrical language inadvertently crack open a door to a very dark place?
Stephen Kastner / October 24, 2021
This is so much more powerful and effective than anything else I have ever read that was written by you. It is a mind-expanding parable that eclipses all of the political pot-banging screams of frustration that you usually write. Like those starfish, someone has to say it out loud but this story does so much more than counter the ongoing global mayhem. That all seems so trivial when compared to this beautiful tale.
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” ― Buckminster Fuller
Auwal Mohammed Nyako / October 24, 2021
Hello Caitlin, this is your most wonderful. It is awe inspiring…….. I weep for sometime then i remember, Rumi said that “weeping is a step to enlightement”….
Steve Leeper / October 24, 2021
I love this
Stuart Ross / October 24, 2021
Caitlin – you’ve outdone yourself with this beautifully poetic piece. I just finished reading Che Guevara’s biography and was left wondering what’s the point of fighting the chronic greed, anger and ignorance of this human race. Your words have touched my shrunken heart.
Thom Prentice / October 24, 2021
Moi aussie. Bravo.
G.R. Graeven / October 24, 2021
Beautiful and inspired.
This particular infinitesimal, conscious manifestation of the universe would like to thank you Ms. Johnstone, I’m glad you’re here in mine.
George Smiley / October 24, 2021
You didn’t mention all the molluscs that are their prey so it’s not without consequences. Anyway if we release enough carbon dioxide which releases enough sea bed and permafrost methane to melt the icecaps and its back to the Permian it’s pretty unlikely there will ever be a species under this sun again that thinks ineffable thoughts beyond daily survival. Well maybe dinosaurs did these things but probably not seeing as they lasted a couple hundred million years instead of the 200 thousand they would have had before they stuffed everything up.
Jeff Emshoff / October 24, 2021
Jai Sri Krsna!
Jupiter / October 24, 2021
BB Benderhaus / October 24, 2021
Caitlin, that may be the best thing you have ever written.
Vayu / October 24, 2021
That made me cry, and it filled me with awe. Your writing expands me, and it validates me. Thank you!
John Rowland / October 24, 2021
I have come to realize that culture is missing. Relationships are culture. We have a culture that assumes we have no culture, but rather are cogs in the wheel of the machine.
Everything comes down from a centralized brain, which then dictates what the cogs do. The cogs are to comply and not think. They are to consume, but not feel. They are to be addicts consuming more and more to the point where what they consume no longer matters. Cars, houses, alcohol, war or vaccines, are all the same to the machine as long as the profits come in.
Good is what benefits the machine. Evil is what does not benefit the machine. It is that simple. It is not about one person, as even Justin Trudeau (Prime Minister) is just a cog in the machine, and if he leaves, he will be replaced by another cog.
That we might be humans existing in a cultural web of relationships with each other, the animals, the plants, and the universe is too much for the machine to understand, so it does not.
Alan Ross / October 24, 2021
I am moved by how the vast universe has an interest, even perhaps love, for one man, including in his pain. Is this column a starfish?
forceOfHabit / October 24, 2021
Joe Blow / October 24, 2021
Beautiful parable. Much enjoyed.
But, today, we learned that the final, complete & UN-redacted CIA records of the JFK assassination, which were mandated for release on Oct. 26, 2017 by the JFK Records Act of 1992, and which that anti-establishment fighter, Trumpy-dump, PROMISED to release – but chickened out and pushed 4-years – were supposed to be released THIS Tuesday, Oct 26, 2021. But today, Biden,Inc.’s handlers in Langley have declared these records “shall be withheld from full public disclosure” until December 15 next year.
Mark your calendars, chumps. As you say, over&over, Caitlyn – and YOU ARE SO CORRECT – our “votes” and “elections” don’t mean shit.