NRI Pulse


Saving the Starfish, One at a Time

By Bellamkonda K. Kishore, M.D., Ph.D., MBA

There is a well-known story about saving the starfish, one at a time, and thus making a difference in everyday life. This story has a deep meaning which really impacts our thinking and lives. The story centers around a little girl on the beach at sun rise and just when the tide started receding, leaving hundreds or thousands of starfish on the sand. The starfish were lying helplessly on the wet sand. They could not go back into the ocean, and soon they would be eaten by the birds and other predators. Obviously they needed help to go back to the water in order to survive. The compassionate little girl, who understood the helpless nature of the starfish and felt the urge to save them, started picking up the starfish and gently throwing them one at a time into the water. Very ardently she was repeating this process. A young man, who was jogging on the beach, stopped for a few seconds and asked the little girl, “what are you doing with the starfish? “The little girl replied that she was helping the starfish survive, because they could not go back to the water on their own.  The young man  told the little girl that as  there were a lot of starfish on the beach,  she could not possibly make a difference to them.  Upon hearing that, the little girl gently threw another starfish into the water, and said “I made a difference to this one” and then she smiled to the astonishment of the young man. This moved the young man so much that he could not resist picking up a starfish and throwing it into the water before resuming his jogging. Such is the impact the compassionate act of the little girl made on the mind of a young man. There are several versions of this touching story on the YouTube, and here is one

I am sure we all can appreciate the sublime and elevating message in the above story, especially after watching the video clip of it with the smiling little girl. But the million dollar question here is, can we transform ourselves and act like that compassionate little girl in our day-to-day life?  While we wish to do so, however, most of us find it not practical for various reasons. I can imagine at least two common reasons put forward by many whose hearts were tugged with this starfish story, but who were still reluctant to act.  The first reason is the same as the young man expressed – we cannot possibly make a difference because so many millions of people are in need in this world. The second reason, often felt by those who consider that even a small difference is worth making is – lack of time or wealth. Here I would like to dissect these reasons and present compelling and rational or scientific argument that these reasons are either myths or born out of our own ignorance.

Let us first examine the argument that we cannot possibly make a difference because so many millions of people are in need in this world. What if I ask an undergraduate student who aspires to become a physician: why s/he wants to become a doctor?  That person may tell that s/he wants to become a doctor to treat patients and alleviate their suffering. Then, if I say to that person “you cannot possibly make a difference because there are so many millions of patients in this world”, then that person will react immediately saying “yes, it is true there are millions of patients in this world; but I can make a difference in the lives of those patients I can treat during my lifetime”.  Similarly, what will we hear if we pose the same question to a person who wants to pursue a profession that benefits the community directly or indirectly, such as a teacher, policeman, or a firefighter or a medical scientist? In all these cases, the answer will be the same: to educate as many students as possible (aspiring teacher) or catch as many criminals as possible (aspiring policeman) or save as many lives as possible from fire accidents (aspiring firefighter) or to invent as many new medicines as possible to cure diseases. Interestingly, none of these aspirants consider the absolute number of people they have to tackle if they want to make a difference statistically. On the other hand, all of them only consider how much they can accomplish in their own lives is more important than the actual amount of work there is out there in the world.  However, ironically, the very people who display such a great spirit of service in choosing their professions often admit that they cannot make a difference in their personal ability to help others because there are so many millions suffering with poverty or disease in this world. Why this dichotomy in our lives? Because people tend to see the suffering in this world through their own profession or lives and thus shape their responses to the suffering they see around themselves. People do not see the suffering in the world in its totality or reality. However, they mentally expand their limited professional work to embrace the whole humanity in need.  A doctor may think that s/he is alleviating the suffering of the patients while pursuing his/her profession and making a living out of it. The same is true for teachers or policemen or firefighters or even medical scientists. But once we take out ‘making a living out of our own professions’, very few of us will be left behind to serve the needy without seeking any return for their efforts.  Despite this hard fact, we often think that we are serving the world without any selfish motive, while we are actually pursuing our own agenda and think that we are selflessly serving the world. But once we understand this logic, we may change and we will be willing to serve without seeking return or remuneration for our effort. If we can do that, then we qualify ourselves for “nishkama karma” or ‘selfless work’ which Bhagawad Gita defined as a form of Yajna. The true meaning of Yajna is “an act directed to the welfare of others, done without desiring any return for it, whether of a temporal or spiritual nature” (The Philosophy of Yajna; In fact, as per Gita, any act that does not constitute Yajna will entangle us in bondage and cycles of birth and death. It is understandable that one has to pursue one’s profession to make a living. But still one can dedicate at least certain amount of one’s professional or personal time for doing Yajna and alleviate the suffering in this world using one’s knowledge, skills and abilities and thus disentangle oneself from the karmic bondage. By doing so, one will also enrich one’s life physically, mentally, intellectually and spiritually. That brings more happiness into our lives than mere pursuit of our professions for a living.

Now, let us turn to the second reason often advanced by those who consider that even a small difference is worth making, i.e., lack of time or wealth. In real life, we may be busy and may not have enough wealth to take care of the needs of others. But, research conducted by Dr. Zöe Chance and her colleagues Drs. Cassie Mogilner and Michael I. Norton, at the Yale School of Management, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and the Harvard Business School are presenting compelling data to convince us that time and wealth are relative aspects in our lives depending on our mental perception. Their findings on the perception of time were first published in the journal Psychological Science (Giving Time Gives You Time, volume 23, pages 1223-1238, year 2012) and later defended by the lead author Dr. Cassie Mogilner in the Harvard Business Review (September 2012 issue, pages 28-29). The salient finding of this captivating study is spending time helping others leaves people feeling as if they have more time, not less. It may sound absurd, but it is true and is proven scientifically. Briefly, in a battery of studies, these researchers assigned some test subjects (volunteers) to either help a person in need (e.g., writing a note for a sick child, or editing student’s essay) or simply left them to do whatever they wanted (this group wasted their time doing things that do not benefit any other person). The outcome of the study was clear – in each experiment the people who lent a helping hand to others felt as if they had more time than the people who did not. What is the reason for this unexpected outcome of the study on perception of time? Dr. Mogilner explained “people who give time (to others) feel more capable, confident, and useful. They feel they’ve accomplished something and therefore, that they can accomplish more in the future. And this self-efficacy makes them feel that time is more expansive” (Harvard Business Review, September 2012 issue, pages 28-29). Perhaps this may be the reason that we find people who are compassionate and often help others never say that they are busy, whereas people who do not care to help others always utter “I am very busy”. Similar to the above published study on the perception of time, the research work of Dr. Zöe Chance and Dr. Michael I. Norton on wealth shows that people feel richer when they give money away. Their study results are intriguing, and suggest that “just as acts of conspicuous generosity signal wealth and power to others, they trigger feelings of subjective wealth and power in those who give – despite decreasing their objective wealth” (Dr. Zöe Chance personal communication; manuscript under review).

The above two studies, although originated in business schools, nevertheless, have profound meaning and application in philanthropy and altruism motivating people to share their time and wealth, however limited they may be. By doing so, people gain enormous subjective feeling of affluence in time and wealth, and thus enjoy confidence and satisfaction in their lives. This exalted state of mind is comparable to the expansive nature of human mind and self, aptly cited not by a philosopher, but a great scientist, Albert Einstein: “A human being is part of a whole, called the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty.”

Acknowledgement: Thanks are due to Dr. Zöe Chance of the Yale School of Management for kindly sharing her research findings and previewing this article.

The author is a medical scientist and freelance writer, and lives in Sandy, Utah.

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