Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Thrush and the Starfish

(I wrote this about two weeks after 9/11. I was teaching at a boarding school at the time and sent it to some folks.)

Back in ’94 or ‘95, I was fortunate enough to hear Elie Wiesel give a
talk at Bates College in Maine. Wiesel, author of Night and many other
books, is a survivor of Auschwitz, as well as a noted advocate for human
rights. At one point he related a story that's stuck in my mind ever since.
Reworked in my head somewhat over time, it goes something like this:

Once there was a Sage, a man of great knowledge and wisdom, who lived in a land ruled by a cruel and domineering King. Tales of the Sage’s learning reached the King, who decided to test the man, and had his men search him out.

Scant days later, the simply-dressed Sage appeared before the King.
Resplendently-garbed and sitting on an ornate throne, the King told the
Sage that he had heard of his great knowledge, and inquired that if it
was true. The Sage replied humbly, saying he knew very little, in fact.

The King kept pressing him about his vast wisdom, but each time the Sage
would defer, humbly. None of this satisfied the King – if anything, he grew more angry.

He told the Sage he was going to test his wisdom, and went over to a
gilded birdcage near his throne. He reached inside and grasped a small
thrush in his hand. It struggled, but it was caught fast in the King's
strong hand. The Sage looked on with concern. The King turned his
back to the Sage so that the Sage could not see for a moment, then turned to
face him once more with his hands behind his back. “The bird is my
hand,” he said, with a threatening tint to his voice. “Now, you are a very
wise man -- tell me, if you can – is the bird alive or dead?”

The Sage was at a momentary loss. The King’s tone not only threatened
the thrush, but also implied a threat towards the Sage – it seemed
likely his own life might depend on his answer. More immediately, though, the Sage found his mind racing back to the thrush and its peril. The King
was the sort of man who would kill the thrush. But he could not bring a
dead thrush back to life. Thus, the thrush was probably alive, but if the
Sage said so, the King would almost undoubtedly kill it for spite, and to
prove the Sage wrong. So should the Sage tell the King the thrush was dead
(even though it probably wasn’t), so that the King, for spite, would
show him the thrush alive? But what then about the Sage’s fate?

“Well?” Said the King, looking not just a little smug. “What is your
answer? Is the bird alive or dead?” The Sage gazed at the King for a
moment, and then replied simply, “The answer is in your hands.”

Another tale, fairly well-known, involves a man on the beach.

The beach is strewn with starfish, many of them cooking under the hot sun. As the man walks along the beach, he sees a second man, who stops to pick up a starfish, and chucks it back into the ocean. This second man then comes to the next starfish, and throws that one in too. The first man comes up to the second man and greets him.

"What are you doing?" he asks.

"Throwing starfish back into the ocean," replied the second man.

"But there must be hundreds of them along this beach." observed the first
man. "Yup," replied the second, picking up another starfish. "But even if
you spent the whole day doing this -- there are hundreds of them -- it
couldn't possibly make a difference."

The second man looked at the first one and said, "It does to this one," and chucked the starfish into the ocean.


There have been times in these past two weeks that I've felt a slow, weary weight growing on my shoulders. I felt the same feeling when I went through the Holocaust Museum in DC years ago, slowly taking in everything over five hours or so. I've felt a similar feeling this past year while watching a 60 Minutes special; it involved interviewing Timothy McVeigh and showed the memorial and museum in Oklahoma honoring the victims of that horrible incident. I've felt a similar emotional exhaustion, a feeling of being overwhelmed, while attending funerals and other tragedies.

Elie Wiesel, when I saw him, radiated what I can best describe as an
aura of spiritual maturity. Here was a man I wanted to study under, a sage
in his own way, perhaps. Another thing he said that stuck in my mind was
this — "You wonder how to respond," he said, addressing the audience.
Yes, we did, many of us nodding our heads — he had been discussing the
Holocaust and other horrible affronts to human rights and the human
spirit — how does respond to such daunting things? "You respond...
responsibly," said Wiesel.

Thse words might seem simple or trite or evasive — reading them on
the page right now -- but Wiesel went on to speak to the idea that any
response, if guided by conscience, was a worthy act. His words, his
meaning, resonated. Last week's events still loom too huge for me to
grasp in their entirety — certainly on an emotional level. So how
does one respond?

To return to the stories of the Thrush and the Starfish, I find that,
as with the Sage, some things (evil or otherwise) are truly beyond my
control. And, similar to the man on the beach, other things are quite
within my ability to alter. Shades of the Serenity Prayer, I
suppose... Perhaps, like the Sage, or the man on the beach, I can make just one person aware of the power they hold in their hands to do good or
evil... Perhaps, the response is merely *to* respond, to do one good act, to
make one human connection -- and we can all build from there.

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