Starfish, Sand and Ripples

 Many of the little things we do to show kindness and caring to others go unnoticed and even more are quickly forgotten.  For the most part, it isn’t a big deal; we are guilty too. Two days ago, I needed a special, hard to find bolt for a home project. I finally found it at an independent local store (Dal R’s) where they refused payment since it was such an inexpensive item.  Despite being very touched by their kindness, I also admit that if I saw the clerk again today I wouldn’t remember his face.

  Early in my career when I was still a newbie to the counseling profession, I found that I was struggling with the fact that not every student that came to me for guidance or therapy walked out with the knowledge, skill or mindset to improve their circumstances.  I had become a counselor to help others and when I failed it troubled me.

   I remember one young man in particular named James. He was a self-referred sixth-grader. Back in the early 90’s it wasn’t common for upper elementary boys to self-refer.  I don’t recall what was happening in his life that prompted him to ask for weekly sessions; what I recall is my feelings. My best efforts didn’t seem to be enough; I wasn’t able to help him get where he wanted to go, or so I thought.

This went on for several weeks, perhaps months. I couldn’t refer James to another counselor because I was the only one assigned to the small rural school. Referring him to a community counselor was also out of the question because he had made it clear that he didn’t want his parents to know he was talking to me about his problems. I didn’t give up on James but perhaps more importantly, he didn’t give up on me.

  I finally asked Alan, another counselor that I had become friends with during graduate school, if he had ever had a student that he just couldn’t reach.  He admitted to having the same experience from time to time. “How do you deal with it?” I asked.

No matter how tightly you grasp sand, some of it will slip through your fingers.

   Alan told me that counseling our students was, in some ways, like grasping a handful of sand.  No matter how hard you try, some of the grains of sand will slip through your fingers. You can use all of your energy to worry about those or you can focus on the ones still in your hand; the ones you can still touch.

   I accepted that theory and it helped me.  It was spring and when school let out for summer vacation, James stopped by for one final session.  He would start middle school across town when the summer break ended. He didn’t get emotional but asked if there was any chance I would be willing to change jobs when school resumed. It was a high compliment; still, I told him it wasn’t likely.

   Summer break, short as always, ended and school resumed.  The middle school students, my former “kids”, rode buses back to their previous elementary school, where they switched buses to ride in the ones that would deliver them to their homes. I had hall duty rather than bus duty so I didn’t get to see James or my other former students during those brief moments of transition. From time to time I would think about James and hope that he was okay.

   Two years passed, I no longer had hall duty at the end of the day. Typically I used that time to finish up notes and straighten my office for the next day.  I was at my desk with my back to the hall when I heard a voice asking, “You don’t remember me do you?”

  I turned around and saw a much more mature version of the student I had worked with when he was a sixth grader. “Of course I remember you, James!”  I was happy that he thought of me and took the time to say hello.

  He gave me a sheepish smile and admitted that he had told the busdriver he needed to use the bathroom as an excuse to come into the building and quickly try to locate me before the buses left again.  “Do you remember when I used to come talk to you?” I said I did and to my surprise, James very sincerely stated, “I probably never told you, but it really helped me.” He didn’t have time to say more and dashed out the door just in time to load the waiting bus.  I have never seen James again.

   All the time that I thought I wasn’t helping him, thinking I was failing him, I was wrong.  In that moment, knowing I had been wrong was the best thing that had happened to me in a very long time.

   The sand analogy, while pretty cool, may not be the best one for those of us that make our living in one of the helping professions.  Instead, our work may be more like the story of a man that is walking along a beach that is heavily littered with stranded starfish. As he walks, he picks them up one at time, tossing them back into the ocean.  When his companion tells him it is impossible to save them all, that his efforts are futile, he responds by tossing yet another starfish back into the sea and remarking, “Yes, but I saved that one.”

   Some of our good intentions go unnoticed and sometimes our best efforts fail.  There is another angle to keep in mind. James gave me a gift. He made me realize that we don’t always get to see the fruits of our good works but that doesn’t diminish the sweetness to those that reap the harvest. I venture to say that, James has no idea that in thanking me for helping him, he helped me.

  I am challenging myself to be mindful off this, especially when others treat me with disrespect or are intentionally hurtful. If I can see past their behavior in the moment, to where perhaps a broken spirit resides, then I might just be able to choose a reaction that doesn’t further break them. 

  As we go about our lives this week, I hope you will join me on this quest;  the quest of the ripple effect brought on from human interactions. We help or we hurt and most of the time we have no idea how far our ripple travels and how many lives are touched. I set off a small ripple for James and it returned to me as a wave. That is why I want to try harder to be a helper instead of a hurter. The difference I make might be compared to giving first aid rather than a cure but isn’t that better than twisting the knife sticking out of someone’s back?

Be well, my friends. If you enjoy my blog, please pass it on to your friends.

Photo credit to the following: Deepak Mahajan, Ian Dooley, Pedro Lastra and Amy Humphries.

Peanut Butter and Socks

 It was really cold here in south central Kentucky this morning, somewhere between 15 and 20 degrees making it my favorite temp for running.  I dressed in my high tech running clothes that are engineered to keep me warm but still wick the sweat away from my skin. I laced up my shoes that I reserve only for running.  I stretched, got my I-pod, blue-tooth earbuds and my dog. We drove just over a mile to the recreation center where I park when running in town and off we went.

Best running partner ever. She is always ready to go and lets me set the pace.

 As Bella, my Labradoodle, and I were driving home I turned onto Bourne Avenue and I spotted a man kneeling on the corner of the sidewalk with his bottom atop of his feet.  His head was bowed down and his cardboard sign was face down in front of him. He could have been praying but most likely was trying to conserve as much body heat as possible while resting his weary bones.

 I am ashamed to admit that there have been times that I would have felt bad for him but continued on my journey.  Today I couldn’t do that. I had already pulled into the parking lot when I remembered that I not only didn’t have my purse with me but I also didn’t have my phone since I didn’t want the cold to drain the battery.  Maybe it was the childhood lesson about not talking to strangers; but I initially hesitated to approach him directly. Between me and the man kneeling at the corner some 50 yards away was a man pumping gas into his SUV and I approached him instead.

“I am wondering if we should call someone for this man”, I started, “ I hate that he is out here like this in the cold.  I don’t have my phone with me.” The man explained that he did not have his phone with him either but suggested I ask the store owner.  Maybe he really didn’t have his phone, maybe he didn’t want to be involved. I probably didn’t look overly trustworthy myself with my red cheeks and hair standing on end where I had just pulled off my ear warming headband.

I went into the store and talked to the owner about the situation and asked if perhaps he could call the police so that the man might get help.  The store owner was nice enough to me but seemed rather perturbed about the man at the corner. “Is he out there again? I have told him not to be there.”

I stepped back outside and decided that I could not just drive off.  It was full daylight, I didn’t have anything like a purse for him to grab or steal from me and it’s a small town.  I decided to not be afraid. That’s right, I decided to not be afraid of him hurting me in someway, or someone else driving by and wondering why I was talking to the man, I even decided to not fear that he might follow me back to my locked car where my dog patiently waited for me in the backseat.

He did not look up as I approached.

“Sir”, I asked, “Are you ok, is there someone I could call for you?”

  My questions were ridiculous.  He could have responded with, “Do I look ok to you? or “Yeah, call Ghostbusters”.  He cast his eyes up at me and I saw that He was younger than I expected and beneath the smudges on his face he was a nice looking man. It is possible that he is some kind of addict but he didn’t look the part.   He simply stated, “I’m hungry”.

He quickly went on  to say more about how he wanted to find work but people were not helping him.  “I just need something to eat, maybe a fudge round. I can work for it”

The man before me was truly hungry and he wasn’t asking me for $10, or to buy his groceries or pay his bills,  he was hoping for one fudge round that cost about 20 cents.

Photo courtesy of jonathan-rados on

I explained that I didn’t have any money on me because I had just finished running but that I only lived about mile away and that I could go home and get food for him and come right back.  He told me the food had to be sealed up because people had tried to poison him or give him food that they had spit on. I realized that might be true or it might be an indicator that he suffers from mental illness, either way I felt a sense of urgency in getting him food.

 I promised I would come right back.  “Five minutes”, I told him. As I turned to go back to the car he called out, “My feet are really cold, if you have some socks”

 At home I didn’t close the garage door and left the car running. Inside I grabbed a plastic bag and tossed in an unopened jar of peanut butter, a bag of animal crackers, a bottle of water and a spoon.  I opened my sock drawer and right on top were my expensive, thick wool socks that I had bought to wear with my hiking boots. I started to dig deeper in the drawer and thought better of it. I stuffed the socks into the bag knowing he needed them much more than I did.  

He was still there.  I gave him the bag and when he looked inside he exclaimed, “Peanut butter!”  You would have thought it was a hundred dollar bill from the appreciation in his voice.  “Socks, too!’ The man stood up but I certainly didn’t feel threatened. He told me he sleeps in the woods.  I don’t know, but I imagine he has constructed some sort of makeshift shelter.

I encouraged him to walk to the Outreach Center a block away and told him they could probably offer more help.  

 He looked at me and said, “You are the only one out of thousands that helped.  God made me just like he made them, but you are the only one that helped. The only difference in me and them is that I haven’t had a shower.”  My heart went out to him, I couldn’t smell him but he was clearly concerned about his hygiene. I imagined how frustrated I would feel if I didn’t have a way to take care of such basic needs.  “You should feel good about what you did.” he called out as he started to walk in the direction of the Outreach Center.

 I am glad that I helped him out though it was in a small way.  I can’t say I feel good about it. Tomorrow he may be hungry again and face more heartless people.  Mother Teresa said, “We can’t all do great things but we can do small things with great love.”

It isn’t going to be as cold tonight but the wind has decided to blow fiercely.  I need to replenish my supply of peanut butter. I like to share it because of it’s good shelf life and nutrition.  Maybe I need to buy more socks too. I don’t have any hiking planned in the near future but if a person needs peanut butter there is a good chance they could use the socks too.

Stay warm and be well my friends

Written on a cold morning in February 2019