She’s out there almost every day of the year. Now in her mid-eighties, sometimes the weather keeps her inside, but even that is rare. When the tide goes out on the beach near her home, she goes walking. You’ll see her with her head bent searching the rocks, bundled against the constant wind, carefully stepping down along the way in her rubber boots. She’s looking for starfish. In this part of Ireland, the tides are quick and extreme, by our standards. And when the waters pull back out to sea, they strand starfish on the rocks. Unable to swim, they’re stuck there until the next tide comes in, many hours later. If the sun is out, they can dry up and die. My sweet old friend can’t bear that, so she patrols her stretch of beach and when she finds a stranded starfish, she picks it up and drops it in the basket she carries. She says when she was younger she’d throw each one back into the water as soon as she’d find it, but that doing that now is hard on her shoulder. She waits til she’s done and then empties her basket into the sea when she’s finished with her walk. You see, she’s been doing this for more than sixty years. How many starfish do you think you’ve returned to the water in all those years, I ask her. Oh, a lot, I imagine, she says. I do a little math and calculate that her efforts have easily helped more than a hundred thousand starfish over the decades.
My friend doesn’t know the Loren Eisley story about the man who saves starfish, like she does. In the story when he’s confronted about the futility of his mission, it doesn’t faze him. “You can’t save them all. What you’re doing doesn’t make a difference.” The old man picks up another starfish and throws it back into the water. “It makes a difference to this one,” he replies.
You could certainly argue that the limited efforts of one old lady on a tiny stretch of beach aren’t going to effect starfish populations worldwide. True. I even wonder how many of those starfish get picked up and “saved” again after the next low tide. But that misses the point, I think, just as the often-told Eisley story misses the point. For me, it’s not about the starfish, but it’s about how acts of kindness change our own hearts. And the world.
I believe that kindness is its own reward. You never know the effects of an act of kindness, nor is that even a consideration for us. As Christians, we’re called to charity and sacrifice. That’s how we follow Jesus. We give because He gives. We love because He loves. We bend over and pick up the fallen and the stranded because that’s what He does for us. We don’t stop to consider the cost of our kindness or even the “good” that it accomplishes. We just do it. We reflect Christ’s charity, which is freely given to everyone, whether they treasure it or not. The act of loving and caring for others is transformational in and of itself. Kindness exercises the muscles of our hearts just as a workout at the gym conditions our physical bodies.
Over the decades, my friend has enjoyed her walks on the beach every day and she’s doubtless helped thousands of starfish in the process. But what she’s really done is to live a life caring for the least of God’s creations. Everyone who sees her is reminded that we can all make a difference in the world, and that no act of charity is every lost. God sees even our smallest kindnesses: a smile, a hug, a word of encouragement. Or one little starfish given another chance to live another day.
“The great acts of love are done by those who are habitually performing small acts of kindness.”