What is "the story of 'the starfishes on the beach'?" (Allusion in essay)

The following is an excerpt from article on DACA etc. in National Review:

I think it is often better for refugees to resettle in countries similar to the one they fled, provided they are safe there, but that this is not an excuse to refuse giving whatever help we uniquely can;* and if you say that it’s unfair to help some people if we can’t help all of them, I’ll have to quote the story about the starfishes on the beach at you.
*[italics original]

What does this allusion mean? I have no clue.

The inability to make a positive difference for everyone doesn’t invalidate efforts to make a positive difference to one person.

Two people are on a beach littered with starfishes. One man is picking up the fishes and tossing them back into the ocean. The other man says, “Why waste your time with that? You can’t save all the starfishes.” The first man picks up a starfish and tosses it into the ocean. “Saved that one.”

Specifically, it’s from a Loren Eiseley essay that has been retold in many much more glurgy ways than he wrote.

I mainly hear this told by Evangelical Christians talking about souls. (The beach is actually the same one with the sand footprints, just down the way from the rainbow bridge and the glurge factory.)

It’s probably the same beach as the sandpiper to give you joy:

HA, HA, HA! Drive-by earworm:

But the stars we could reach
Were just starfish on the beach.


This is how it’s usually presented and as mentioned, there’s often a religious angle to it. But Eiseley (not a religious man) was writing about what it meant that man is an animal that tries to save things like the starfish. In the essay, it didn’t matter if the thrower could save only one star or all of them.

Heh. I am reminded of one of the few Facebook posts that made me laugh. Someone posted one of those “Share this picture of Jesus” things using a picture of Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi, presumably for comedic purposes. Which was not particularly funny in itself, but in the comments below it someone had written:

Thanks, people.

I actually also don’t know what “glurge” means… (is it a Brit word?)

A story, poem, lesson etc. that is overly sweet and sentimental and usually religious.

Nope - new to me too :-

Glurge is a catch-all term for any “inspirational” tale which conceals a much darker meaning than the uplifting moral lessons it purports to offer. (The word “glurge” was initially coined by a reader of Snopes.com , and derives from the sound of someone throwing up.)
Glurge - TV Tropes


Do you know what “google” means?

I mean, I know you aren’t supposed to say “just google it”, but when it is an individual word, more often then not the first hit is the definition.

The starfish story is used by a number of foster/adopt organizations. Usually, the last lines spoken are along the lines of, “There are too many, throwing a few back doesn’t matter!” “It matters to this one.” (toss) Starfish jewelry with the “it matters to this one” line are common.

It just occurred to me to ask how all those starfish got on the beach? They’re not a migrating species (laden or unladen), and it doesn’t seem like the tide would strand that many of them in one location.

There’s a guy just like the one on the beach throwing starfish into the ocean, but with a goatee; he’s underwater tossing starfish up on to the beach.

Moderator Note

This is addressed in the FAQ for this forum.

You knew you weren’t supposed to say “just google it”, so please, don’t say it.

In Snopes, the explanation of “glurge” is as follows:

Are starfish capable of experiencing trauma? I know that I am; and if I had, through the normal hurly-burly of life’s vicissitudes, been transferred from a suburban to a hyper-rural environment, then finding myself suddenly flung back into the suburban environment would probably be pretty traumatic, and not at all the kind of thing I would be grateful for, the benevolent intentions of the flinger notwithstanding.

Picking up a starfish from the beach, cutting it in half, then tossing the halves back creates a situation where due to regeneration, you now have two starfish. So there’s also that interpretation.