by S.M. Chen  |  22 January 2018  |  

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” —Edmund Burke (1729-1797), Irish statesman and philosopher


The story is told of an old man who walks the beach.  He is in the habit of doing this before he begins his daily writing.

Fog still hovers low, obscuring things in the distance.  Like the metaphoric cat of Carl Sandburg’s short poem, “The Fog,”  it still sits on silent haunches.  It has not yet moved on.

A big storm has passed.  The beach is littered with starfish in both directions as far as the eye can see.

A boy approaches.  His pants are rolled up halfway to his knees.  He bends down, picks up something, then flings it into the sea.  

The old man watches awhile.  Finally, he calls out, “Hey, sonny, what are you doing?”

“But there must be hundreds.  I’m afraid you won’t be able to make much of a difference.” The lad picks up yet another starfish and throws it into the ocean. He turns, smiles, and says, “It made a difference to that one!”

Comes the reply:  “Throwing starfish back into the ocean.  They got stranded on the beach from the tide.  When the sun gets high, they will die unless I throw them back.”

The old man replies, “But there must be hundreds.  I’m afraid you won’t be able to make much of a difference.” 

The lad bends down, picks up yet another starfish and throws it as far as he can into the ocean.

He turns, smiles, and says, “It made a difference to that one!”

The old man continues his walk.  He will have something different to write about this day.


A column in the newspaper to which I subscribe caught my attention.  The columnist, a reporter known for his true tales of the downtrodden, the disadvantaged, the oppressed, wrote a first-person story of his interaction with a middle-aged woman who had fallen on hard times.

Once a legal secretary, she was diagnosed with diabetes about two decades ago.  Almost a decade later she learned her kidneys were failing.  I suspect she’d developed diabetic nephropathy.  She began dialysis five years ago and now gets the life-saving filtration at a local hospital thrice a week. Her underlying illness and dialysis often left her fatigued.  She lost her job then, medical disability income insufficient for rent, lost her apartment.

At the end of last year, the friend with whom she had been staying died, and the landlord raised the rent.  She was forced to move.

Despite some assistance from a brother living overseas and a niece in Colorado, she could not find an affordable place. Ongoing expenses mounted, pushing her to the brink of insolvency. By spring she was living in her 27-year-old car with 275k miles on the odometer. She is on a waiting list for a women’s shelter and a kidney transplant. Both may take a long time. No one knows just how long.

The thought of moving away from Southern CA to an unfamiliar, more affordable place while chronically ill was daunting. Initially she had trouble sleeping in a cramped position in the backseat of her car, but has become accustomed. It is far from optimal.

Yet she considers herself better off than most homeless people.

She was quoted, “If you’re not in a great situation, you want to believe there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”  So far her tunnel has been largely dark.


I could not read about her plight and do nothing. A lump rose in my throat as I contemplated how more alike she and I were than different. The thought came to me: there but for the grace of the Almighty go I. So the same day I read the piece, I wrote the columnist, whose e-mail address was at the end of his piece. I told him that I have an extra bedroom and bathroom, to which she’d be welcome.   I would need permission from my landlord, but did not anticipate difficulty obtaining such.

Should she accept my offer, I have no idea how long she would be here. But at least she would not have to worry about room and board during that time. Perhaps I could help her get back on her feet.

I did not hear from the columnist, but did, the next day, receive an e-mail from her. It was written with care. She was an English major in college.

In part, it said this:  

“Thank you for your kind offer.  I’ve gotten a few offers already.  The response has been overwhelming.  Thanks again for your kindness to a total stranger.  I truly feel blessed.”

That message was heartwarming.  I almost felt a glow in a place my heart occupies.

I was touched by the graciousness of her reply, written by someone ill and suffering, under less than ideal circumstances (I had no idea from whence her e-mail came).


Follow up since I wrote the above: she appears to have accepted the offer of someone else. Which is, perhaps, just as well.  It will likely work better for her. Geography was not favorable, in that her dialysis is carried out in a different county from where I live, and would require more driving than she may have wished to do.  Details may have proved daunting.


Starfish are scattered all around us.  One need not look far to find them.  She is one.  There are many like her, some worse off.  All have been stranded by the tides of vicissitude.  They cannot get back on their own to the sea of comfort.

So who will help them?

As one walks the pier of life and gazes down, one can see the homeless huddled against the base of pilings. They have fallen through the cracks in the uneven pier, which in places are wide enough to accommodate passage of a human.  The safety net of our society did not stop them from hitting bottom.

We are told the poor will always be with us. But that doesn’t give us license to ignore them.

The words of Matthew 25 ring between my ears.  In some way, however small, I need keep the image of the boy at the beach in mind, ever close to consciousness.


I’m convinced Edmund Burke, and others of similar mentality, were right.  Even though we may not be able to do everything, we can do something.

We are told angels walk among us.  I am convinced they do not walk in the guise of the rich, the beautiful, the famous, the privileged in the top tiers of society.  

Au contraire.  I think they may be the disabled, the homeless, the disenfranchised, the marginalized and downtrodden, those to whom the master Starfish Saver ministered.  

I don’t want to learn someday that I missed the opportunity to meet a celestial being who impersonated someone whom, in a moment of weakness, I might have tempted to look down upon.

I need to pick up as many starfish as I can.



S.M. Chen writes from California.

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