Here’s the deal: It isn’t how we wish it were. It isn’t how we want it to be. And, of course, you say, “No kidding. We got up early to hear this?” Well. Here’s the kicker. It isn’t how we think it is.
You know the parable of the Starthrower. Surely you do. Everybody does. It is one of the internet’s favorite sources of inspiration and encouragement. The Starthrower has surpassed Horatio Alger as the cultural icon of optimism and positive thinking. You CAN—YOU can—make a difference by doing one seemingly insignificant thing at a time! We CAN—WE can—right wrongs and restore harmony and make the world like we want it to be just by doing the next thing right. TV commercials have picked up on the theme, and we have people all over the world seeing other people do something right and good and doing it themselves so that it is passed along, and in the space of a thirty second spot the world is transformed before our eyes. The Starthrower is the champion of our lives and the hope of the future and we all are to be like him. It is so heart warming, so inspiring and hopeful to know that we all are the Starthrower and life is our beach.
This is truer than we think, but not like we think. We ARE the Starthower. But, with a twist the story doesn’t envision. Come with me from the shallows of internet inspiration into the depths and realness of life. Here’s the deal: An adult starfish consumes roughly 200 oysters and clams a year and can live up to 35 years. That’s 7,000 oysters and clams. Starfish are also responsible for the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and for the decimation of other coral reefs world wide. A female starfish can produce hundreds of millions of eggs a year. Life for the starfish is death for oysters, clams and coral reefs. We ARE—WE are—the Starthrower. Damned if we do and damned if we don’t. We stand on the beach covered with starfish. The sun is coming up. What do we do? How can we live with ourselves no matter what we do? THAT is the moral of the Starthrower story. And THAT is where we all are.
We live with ambiguity and uncertainty, ambivalence and indecision—and everything is on the line! We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t, and we cannot unhook ourselves in order to be free. “Being ourselves while still accepting others is one of the hardest things we can do,” says Sheldon Kopp. Being true to ourselves while living in caring relationships with others is practically impossible. How much for us? How much for them? What do we do when our good is their bad? When their good is our bad? We all have, or had, jobs that we don’t like which keep us from doing what we do like. We all are stuck in places we don’t want to be that keep us from being where we want to be. And there is “No Exit.” And, we are kidding ourselves if we think not.
Kidding ourselves is what we do best. And, we must kid ourselves because we, in the words of Col. Nathan P. Jessup, “can’t handle the truth!” We hate it. We reject it. We refuse to consider it. We will NOT be in a life with No Exit! We CANNOT be there! We cannot live like that. And so, you know, we do what we do best. We kid ourselves. We tell ourselves stories to make our lives bearable. Lies. We lie to ourselves about how it is with us. We deny how it is with us. We dismiss the reality of how it is with us. We discount the weight of our lack of options and the truth of our lives. We distract ourselves with silver mirrors and Mardi Gras beads. We divert ourselves with happy fantasies. We lay down smoke screens and confuse ourselves by replacing how it is with how we wish it were and how we want it to be.
“Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you have on? Could it be a faded rose from days gone by? And did I hear you say he was meeting you here today to take you to his mansion in the sky?” Or, how about this one: “Counting flowers on the wall, that don’t bother me at all, smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo, now don’t tell me I have nothing to do”? We’ve created a culture of distraction, dismissal and denial because we cannot handle life as it is, on the beach among the starfish.
Don’t believe me? Here’s an experiment for you. Start talking about how it is difficult to be you. About what you don’t like about your life. About what you can’t tolerate. See how people respond. I’d bet you $20 if I still did that kind of thing, that they will tell you that you don’t have anything to complain about. They will immediately point out 25 or 30 people who have it worse than you do. You can’t have it bad if someone has it worse. If you don’t have it bad you have to feel better. You have to feel good about someone else having it bad, about someone else having it worse than you do. Get happy! You have to be happy! If you don’t get happy quickly no one will have anything to do with you!
Or, here’s another thing you can try. Notice how our inspirational stories are always simple and absolute. Good and evil are never scrambled together like eggs, or blended and poured into a glass like a whiskey sour or a margarita. Solutions are never tempered with dilemmas and difficulties. Horatio Alger triumphs over every obstacle. The Starthrower rescues starfish, he doesn’t kill oysters and clams and coral reefs. And everything always works out nicely in the end. There may be temporary setbacks, but ultimately there is glory, and joy, and easy living beyond imagining. This is not how things actually are, but it is how we wish things were, how we want things to be, and we believe that if we can just get it together it will be that way for us.
Look, it’s like this: Life is a mixed bag, a mixed blessing. “Fortune and glory” come with a price tag attached. We have to give up this to get that, and that is not always what we think it will be. We feel short-changed and cheated from time to time, and can’t imagine living out the rest of our lives on life’s terms, stuck between mutually disagreeable options, and forced to choose which path we don’t want to walk. Life for the starfish is death for oysters, clams and coral reefs. We cannot tell people what they do not want to hear. We cannot change the minds of people who are sure that their way of seeing is the way to see. And we cannot live with ourselves without trying. But, how long can we try to do what cannot be done without flaming out into dry, lifeless, cinders?
Look, it’s like this: You’re playing in the sand box with your shovel and your pail while your mother and father are sitting at the kitchen table working out the details of their divorce. You are planting tomatoes and thinking about what’s for dinner when Genghis Khan comes riding over the hill, when the Vikings sail into the harbor, when the airplanes hit the Twin Towers, when the earthquake destroys the village, when the tsunami rolls ashore, when your doctor calls with the lab report…
Life is lived between disasters, in the midst of upheaval, disruption, chaos. But, that’s no way to live! What kind of life is that? Who wants to live like that? Give us “peace like a river”! Let us “lay down our burdens”! Allow us to be like that “lucky ol’ sun with nothing to do but roll around heaven all day”! Surely there is a formula, a recipe, a plan for making our lives like we want them to be! A way of getting God on our side so that things are always as we wish they were! Ah, don’t you see it coming? Religion, dogma and true belief. Our hedge against the encroaching realities.
We live in the world in light of how we want things to be, in light of how we wish things were. We live as though the world is what we want it to be, or, as though it can be if we believe the right things and live in the right ways. We yearn for the way to the world we want to live in. And, we are easy marks for those promising deliverance and direction and salvation. We take what they give us, believe what they say, and do as we are told. And Genghis Khan still rides over the hill. And we blame ourselves for not believing properly or living correctly. And, we redouble our efforts. And Genghis Khan still rides over the hill. We should change the way we play the game.
Look, it’s like this: Instead of telling ourselves that we can have anything we want, or that we can do anything we choose, or that we can change the world to suit ourselves, or that just one person with a good heart and a willing disposition can transform the shape of history, or that all we have to do is try-try-try and our lives will turn out exactly like a Hollywood script, we might tell ourselves that we are in a Prisoner of War camp with no chance of escape or release. There are no distractions or diversions. We cannot wrap ourselves in fantasies about our lives and our future. There is only life with our fellow prisoners to acknowledge and perfect. We can live together in ways that are truly good for one another. But it won’t make a difference in terms of anything beyond the relationships we establish and develop. The difference, such as it is, lies in how we treat each other, lies in what we manage to bring to life between us, among us. We are not changing the world so much as we are creating a world within the POW camp by the power of our creative engagement with each other.
We bring a world to life by bringing life to life in each other. How do we bring life to life in a POW camp? With no hope of escape or release? With nothing to look forward to beyond a tomorrow that was just like yesterday? How can we live together there to keep tomorrow fresh and new and nothing like yesterday? How can we help one another bear the burden of the POW camp, of the beach, where life for the starfish is death for oysters, and clams and coral reefs, where we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t, and it doesn’t matter what we do because something is going to die regardless?
In the POW camp, or on the beach, it doesn’t matter what we do and everything rides on what we do, on how we engage one another and face together the facts that define our lives. There, we no longer do “this” so “that” will happen, but because “this” needs to happen now. We do “this” because we enjoy it, or because it is important to someone else that we do it, or because it is an expression of who we are and we come alive in it and through it. We live not to get something or accomplish something with what we do, but to come alive, be alive—to be blessed and be a blessing by and in the company we keep, and share the joy of life with one another.