Of Starfish and Transformation

By Wren Bellavance-Grace

Hand holding up a bronze colored sea star with 5 arms to a clear blue sky over a white sandy beach

Maybe you’ve heard the inspirational story about the starfish. It’s often told as a celebration of a young child’s hope triumphing over a curmudgeonly elder’s resignation to the inevitability of encroaching doom. But taking those signifiers out of the story, and it goes something like this:

Person One arrives on the beach one morning to discover that an overnight storm has stranded thousands of starfish all along the beach, all of them helpless to move back to the safety of the sea.

Person One begins picking up starfish and throwing them back into the ocean.

Person Two arrives, inquires, and scoffs. “There are way more starfish here than you can throw. You’re wasting your time. What little you do won’t make a difference in the face of this massive stranding.”

Person One considers, pauses, picks up another starfish and throws it into the sea, saying, “It made a difference to that one.”

Let’s suspend our inner critical voices about systemic responses to climate crises and the unintended consequences when humans interfere with the natural world. The tale’s simple inspirational message is, choose hope. Try. Act anyway. To quote Mahatma Gandhi, “Whatever you do may seem insignificant, but it is most important that you do it.”

It’s also a story about a person acting from their spiritual leadership.

Regular readers of this blog will know that when we talk about ‘spiritual leadership,’ we are not only calling to mind Joan of Arc or Mahatma Gandhi. We’re talking about YOU. And me; and everyone we know all over the world acting in alignment with their deepest hopes every day.

New readers of this blog might want to know that spiritual leadership is an orientation and a birthright. It is the way we try to live and be in the world, and it is available to each and every one of us in all of our different identities and social locations. Each of us can choose to embrace and claim our spiritual leadership. In our communities of faith, we come together to support and challenge one another and ourselves to practice the ways of spiritual leadership.

Both Person One and Person Two in our starfish story came upon a scene whose scope was both overwhelming, and not of their own making. Person Two saw an intractable problem and felt in the moment that they had no power to address it. Person One, on the other hand, did a quick discernment about how to navigate between their power and their powerlessness. Person One had gifts to bring: compassion, problem solving, and a decent throwing arm. They decided it was better to help some few who were within reach than to help none at all.

All of us are faced with struggles large and small. Global crises like climate change, pandemics, systemic injustices, persistent violence - all of these feel intractable, unsolvable, maybe even inevitable. Some days, just being able to put a meal on the table for ourselves and our family can feel almost insurmountable. The practices of spiritual leadership can help us find our power by centering in our own gifts - what do I bring that I could offer in response to what is happening? Remembering that we have a community to help us identify and deploy our gifts can be an amazing blessing when we feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the world’s need.

One of the greatest benefits of a commitment to the practices of spiritual leadership is the transformation that follows from living and acting in alignment with our highest values and deepest dreams. With each starfish Person One helped back into the sea, they felt empowered; transformed from helplessness to hope. Person Two witnessed that transformation and began to help even more starfish get back to the sea. Another bystander posted a video of them on TikTok and soon the beach was full of neighbors acting together for transformation. They may not have halted the global climate crisis, but they transformed what might have been a serious crisis in their local ecosystem.

Teacher and social activist Grace Lee Boggs taught that we must transform ourselves to transform the world. The practices of spiritual leadership are a pathway toward transformation, and our congregations can be vital hubs of individual transformations which ripple out into our communities and beyond. As our beloved hymn reminds us, we can build a new way; we can feed our every need. We can bend that arc toward a more just world, ever so slightly. One starfish at a time.

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About the Author

Wren Bellavance-Grace

Wren works with the New England Region team to support congregations across New England with particular experience in Safer Congregations, faith formation, and spiritual leadership.

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