How often do you take action to make a difference?

Today is August 14 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you take action to make a difference?” As you work towards translating your dreams into reality, how often do you see opportunities where you could make a difference? Today’s reflections consist of two stories, one from Mexican folklore and the other from American natural science writer Loren Eiseley.

In her book Turning to One Another, Margaret Wheatley retells the following short story that originated in Mexican folklore.

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“A long time ago there was a great fire in the forests that covered the earth. People and animals started to run, trying to escape from the fire. An owl was running away also when he noticed a small bird hurrying back and forth between the nearest river and the fire.

Owl headed towards the small bird. The small bird was running to the river, picking up small drops of water in his beak, then returning to the fire to throw that tiny bit of water on the flame.

Owl approached the small bird and asked "What are you doing? What are you trying to do? After a brief pause the small bird answered: "I am doing the best I can with what I have."

Risking his own life, the small bird demonstrated thoughtfulness in trying to extinguish the fire one beak of water at a time. With that the owl and other animals followed the small bird’s example.

According to this legend the forests that covered the earth were saved from a great fire by a small bird, an owl, and many other animals who got together to put out the fire.”

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In this piece of Mexican folklore, we have a small bird setting the example for others by simply filling his beak up with water and dropping it over the fire. Doing this small task repeatedly was the only option available for the small bird. The small bird was not interested in what the other animals were doing. Are you so interested in what others are doing that you are unable to make a difference? Are you worried that your beak is too small to make a difference? Have you decided that your small amount of effort would fail to make a difference?

We see a similar theme in a well-known short story entitled “The Star Thrower” by Loren Eiseley.

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“Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer still and called out "Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?"

The young man paused, looked up, and replied "Throwing starfish into the ocean."

"I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?" asked the somewhat startled wise man.

To this, the young man replied, "The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don't throw them in, they'll die."

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, "But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!"

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, "It made a difference for that one.”

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In this story we uncover several important themes for reflection.

First, we have the young man performing the task of throwing the star fish in the water while no one is watching. Are you making a difference if no one is watching? Do you have to post every good deed you do on social media so people can tell you how wonderful you are? Does your need for recognition outweigh your need to make a difference without anyone knowing about it?

Second, we have the scene of miles of beach but one determined young man to make a difference. Does the size of the beach deter you from making a difference? Why do you let the enormity of the scale prevent you from helping others?

Third, we have the few star fish the young man can save. The young man understands his limitations and recognizes the difference he can make in the lives of those star fish he can save. Must you save the thousands of star fish across the entire beach or can you find comfort knowing that you, like the small bird in the first story, did the best you could with what you had?

It is interesting to note that both Wheatley and Eiseley navigated their chaos and had fascinating careers. Along the way they started to understand their unfolding potential of making a difference.

Since 1966, Margaret Wheatley has worked globally in many different roles: a speaker, teacher, community worker, consultant, advisor, author, and leader. From these deep and varied experiences, she has developed the unshakable conviction that leaders must learn how to evoke people’s inherent generosity, creativity, and need for community.

As Wheatley wrote on her website “When Turning to One Another was first published in 2002, I made a rash statement: “I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again.” I still believe this. I still believe that if we turn to one another, if we begin talking with each other – especially with those we call stranger or enemy – then this world can reverse its darkening direction and change for the good. And I know with all my heart that the only way the world will change is if many more of us step forward, let go of our judgments, become curious about each other, and take the risk to begin a conversation.”

Much like Wheatley, Eiseley had a diverse career spanning four decades teaching, researching, and publishing academic articles. In addition to his scientific and academic work, Eiseley began in the mid-1940s to publish the essays which brought him to the attention of a wider audience. Commenting on Eiseley’s impact anthropologist Pat Shipman wrote:

“the words that flowed from his pen ... the images and insights he revealed, the genius of the man as a writer, outweigh his social disability. The words were what kept him in various honored posts; the words were what caused the students to flock to his courses; the words were what earned him esteemed lectureships and prizes. His contemporaries failed to see the duality of the man, confusing the deep, wise voice of Eiseley's writings with his own personal voice. He was a natural fugitive, a fox at the wood's edge (in his own metaphor).”

So, you can have a career and make a difference. The choice is yours.