Giving Very Small

It’s an old tale. One morning after a big storm, a wise man walks along a beach covered with starfish. He watches as a small boy bends to pick up a starfish and throw it into the ocean.

“What are you doing,” he asks?

“Throwing starfish into the ocean,” the boy replies. “If I don’t, they will die when the sun gets high.”

“But there are tens of thousands of starfish,” says the man. “I’m afraid you won’t be able to make much of a difference.”

The boy picks up another starfish and throws it into the sea. “It made a difference to that one,” he says.

(Cited in Amy Goldstein’s forthcoming Janesville, An American Story, p. 51)

These days, as I walk through the city I pass so many homeless people, often slumped on the sidewalk with a small, sad sign in black magic marker, a note to catch someone’s attention. But there are so many, I’m overwhelmed. How do I choose? What difference can my “spare change” possibly make to this immense tragedy? I look away, not just from their signs but from their faces. I pass by, embarrassed.

I decided to change that. My New Year’s resolution was to take with me each day a certain number of dollar bills and give them away until they are gone. I still have to choose, of course, but not in exactly the same way. Now I have a goal and I have a limit. I don’t need to judge worthiness or compare hardships. I only have to give the money away, and since it’s not much money, it’s hardly a sacrifice on my part.

The day after I made the resolution, I got a note from my brother, Walker. It included an article he wrote in which he described his efforts to give something to someone every day, no matter how inconsequential the gift may seem.

Walker is a Buddhist, so I suspect this may come more naturally to him; whereas I am a lapsed Episcopalian, and a more tight-fisted bunch is hard to imagine. (Believe me, I’ve thought about how to make these gifts tax-deductible, although I haven’t yet asked anyone for a receipt.)

The reactions vary. Most are grateful, as much it sometimes seems for the recognition as the small amount of money; a few hardly notice. Because each small gift won’t alleviate the recipient’s distress – nor will they collectively make a dent in the city’s poverty – I suppose you could argue they’re little more than random acts of selfishness.

But each transaction is an interaction with another being, someone I do not know, yet may pass by every day. It’s an exchange, and in that moment when I don’t look away – a moment I hope transcends both selfishness and charity – I imagine two people a little happier and a city a little more human.

Read Walker’s article. We could make this a movement.

James G. Blaine

About James G. Blaine

Most of us undervalue what seem our tiny contributions to our communities and the world. As a result, we feel powerless, even victimized. But, like the butterfly effect in science, the lives we lead with our families, in our communities, and at work – all the so-called little things we do – collectively change the world. As I grow older, my ambition grows more modest but not less important: to participate fully and to contribute what I can. That’s my goal with this blog.