Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Saving the world, one starfish at a time (or not)

Before I start, I am under no illusions - I am not saving the world!

This morning, as I went out early, I found a starfish on the pavement, just by the doorstep. A real starfish - the photo is at the bottom. It looked wet and it seemed reasonable to think it might still be alive. I was amazed and wondered if the storm or rain last night had really been bad enough to pick up a starfish and carry it the 500m+ it would need to travel.... and rushed off to my appointment.
When I got back half an hour later, it was still there, so I took photos, and went to tell other half about it. He very sensibly pointed out that it was probably dropped there by a seagull (not as exciting as the idea of wether-induced flying starfish, but far more plausible). I dragged him out of bed and we hatched a plan to take it back to its home and put it in the sea.

I'll explain here that there is a sort of parable by which I'd like to live my life, commonly known as "the starfish story" or The Star Thrower, written by Loren Eiseley in 1969. It's been re-told many times in different ways, and I heard about it from my utterly uninspiring headteacher, who managed to inspire me with this - I can't remember anything else remotely inspirational or even interesting that he ever said.
The version I remember I think of as having a small boy as the thrower, others have an old man or a girl. The beach is covered in starfish which have been washed up after a storm. Someone, let's say a small boy, is walking along the beach, throwing starfish back into the sea, one by one. Someone else, I think an old man, walks up to him and says "why are you doing this? there are thousands of starfish here, you can't possibly make a difference". The boy picks up another starfish and throws it, saying "I made a difference to that one".

It's such a simple, beautiful story, and although I don't think of it often, it's stayed with me over the years. I understood the message to be: you don't have to change the whole world, but you can make a difference to someone, or even a few people. Even if you make a difference only to a few, you have still made a difference, you can still change lives.

Others perceive it as meaning you should do what you believe in no matter the criticism. On looking it up just now, some versions have the old man deciding to join the boy in throwing the starfish, and more and more people join in, ending with the rather twee "all the starfish were saved" (personally I don't think saving all the starfish is the point, I think the point is that it is always worth making a difference, even if you can't make a difference for everyone; you can't save the world - saving all the starfish kind of is saving the world, and feels unrealistic). In that version, the message can be that you achieve something if you all work together, or if you can persuade everyone that it is worth making a difference.

I think this story is one of the things that spurs me on to do what I do, or what I'm going to do, be it medicine, volunteering with seriously ill children (more on that another time), campaigning, volunteering in schools... Each patient in my medical career could be a potential starfish. Not that they've all come to me to be saved, but that even if I can't do everything, I can still make a difference. To remind me of this, I have two beautiful pictures of starfish - one a birthday card from the other half some years ago, and one a sparkly postcard I bought last year while presenting my work at a conference abroad. I want to frame them both.

Back to this morning: given that this story really means something to me, I thought it would be a great idea to live in out (on a minute scale) myself, and take our doorstep starfish back to the sea. I didn't want to do it on my own - I thought I might need help (my intention was to carry it on a baking tray, I thought that way it might not dry out too much), I wanted it to document the starfish saving adventure photographically, and also I thought I would feel less silly and look less nuts if there were two of us poking and picking up a starfish and carrying it along. So I woke up the other half, got back in bed for a bit, waited for him to properly wake up and get dressed and got some plastic bags and an oven tray together, took other half outside with me.... only to find the starfish had gone. I don't know what happened. Maybe another seagull came along and thought it looked tasty. Maybe the first seagull wanted another go. Maybe some other people had the same idea and got there first, and the starfish is now happily floating away.... I'll never know. But I'm kind of kicking myself for not getting straight back outside and doing it myself. Specially if the seagulls got it.

I don't even know if it was still alive in the first place. But I'm still a bit sad about it - next time I'll seize the opportunity to throw a starfish when I see it, not half an hour later.

However, the positives: I saw a starfish! I never even knew they lived in this country.
In this time of considerable stress about exams, whether I'm good enough to pass, whether I'm good enough to be a doctor, whether I even really want to be a junior doctor with the stress and responsibility and total lack of confidence in my non-existent abilities that that involves, it was nice to be reminded of a reason why I came here in the first place - to make a difference, even if only to a few starfish out of thousands. That I can be that difference, and that it's worth it even if you can't save the world.

To have a real starfish to remind my of all this, to make me keep going - maybe that starfish was on my doorstep for a reason. I don't believe in fate - that would have been a nice explanation. But sometimes things happen for a reason, and today's starfish could have been there to rejuvenate and encourage me, to remind me to keep going. So I will.

[I realise this post could give away where I am, and therefore which medical school I'm at. And this is supposedly an anonymous blog. Please note I am not necessarily at home, or not necessarily at the place where I study - I might have gone away somewhere. Or be staying with family. You never know - make no assumptions.]

No comments:

Post a Comment