Badger Beginnings - starfish troopers | HBR 40
I think I might have been in high school the first time I was told the starfish analogy... probably by someone who didn’t know its origins. 

The analogy captures some of the story from the original narrative, The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley. The usual telling is of a man walking along a beach upon which the tide is stranding starfish. The man encounters another character, usually a younger man or a boy, throwing starfish individually back into the sea. He asks the youth what he’s doing and why, and the youth explains that he’s throwing the starfish back because the tide is going out, and if they’re not returned to the water, they will die. The man points out that there are thousands of starfish along miles of beech surrounding them, and asks how the youth could possibly think he is making a difference. The analogy, told in motivational speech after motivational speech, always ends with the youth throwing another starfish into the sea while explaining, “It made a difference to that one.”

It can be motivational the first time you hear it, and it’s not wrong to point out that even the smallest of gestures can make a difference… but it wasn’t quite how or where the story went. Eiseley’s narrative was not just about one person’s ability to make a difference, but about the redemption of a man who had descended into a kind of despondent apathy. The essay is 16 pages long, with only a bit of that dedicated to the star thrower on the beach. It starts with a description of the scene, including professional shellers whose role in the story never makes it into that motivational analogy.

Eiseley writes:

I concealed myself beneath a fisherman’s cap and sunglasses, so that I looked like everyone else on the beaches of Costabel, which are littered with the debris of life. There, along the strip of wet sand that marks the tide, death walks hugely and in many forms. The sea casts them repeatedly back upon the shore. The tiny breathing pores of starfish are stuffed with sand. The rising sun shrivels their unprotected bodies. The endless war is soundless. Nothing screams but the gulls. In the night, torches bobbing like fireflies along the beach, are the sign of the professional shellers. Greedy madness sweeps over the competing collectors, hurrying along with bundles of gathered starfish that will be slowly cooked and dissolved in the outdoor kettles provided by the resort hotels for the cleaning of specimens.

Next, Eiseley describes his encounter with the star thrower, who is further along the beach. As in the motivational analogy, he finds him examining the unfortunate creatures for signs of life, then gently tossing the live ones back into the sea in the hope that they won’t end up back on the beach again. The description subtly offers a hint to the impression the star thrower makes.

In a pool of sand and silt a starfish had thrust its arms up stiffly and was holding its body away from the stifling mud. “It’s still alive,” I ventured. “Yes,” he said, and with a quick, yet gentle movement, he picked up the star and spun it over my head and far out into the sea. “It may live if the offshore pull is strong enough,” he said.

In a sudden embarrassment for words I said, “Do you collect shells?” “Only ones like this,” he said softly, gesturing amidst the wreckage of the shore, “and only for the living.” He stooped again, and skipped another star neatly across the water. “The stars,” he said, “throw well. One can help them.” He looked full at me with a faint question kindling in his eyes.

Embarrassed for words… or in a more modern phrasing, at a loss for them. Having just wandered through the ranks of shellers plundering the beach for these same creatures, only to kill them in boiling water for their marketable shells, the clearly jaded traveler is suddenly confronted with an individual whose behavior contradicts everything for which his current state of mind allows. The contrast between his internal bleakness and the vibrant demonstration of compassion upon which he has stumbled leads to cognitive dissonance and a sense of awkwardness.

Eiseley’s initial response to this, one that is all too common in the human animal, is to try to maintain his morose outlook:

“No, I do not collect,” I said uncomfortably, the wind beating at my garments. “neither the living nor the dead. I gave it up a long time ago. Death is the only successful collector.” I nodded and walked away, leaving him there with the great rainbow ranging up the sky behind him.

I turned as I neared a bend in the coast and saw him toss another star, skimming it skillfully far out over the ravening and tumultuous water. For a moment, in the changing light, the Sower appeared magnified, with the posture of a god. But, my cold world-shriveling view began its inevitable circling in my skull. He is just a man, I considered sharply, bringing my thought to rest. The star thrower is a man, and death is running more fleet than he, and along every seabeach in the world. 

There is the sense of hopelessness, often described in motivational speeches, which Eiseley first attempts to maintain. This is followed by his return to the solitude of his room, and the narrative of his own thoughts. 

The bulk of the story details this mental journey the star thrower set him on, taking him through childhood moments, aspects of humanity, the loss of his mother, man’s relationship to other animals and the universe, science vs religion, and an eventual awakening; the understanding that what separates us from other animals is, in fact, our capacity to choose our view of the world around us, and our capacity to choose our impact on it. We have the power of premeditated, deliberate altruism.

On a point of land, as though projecting into a domain beyond us, I found the star  thrower. In the sweet rain-swept morning, that great many-hued rainbow still lurked and  wavered tentatively beyond him. Silently, I sought and picked up a still-living star, spinning it far out in to the wave. I spoke once briefly. “I understand,” I said, “call me another thrower.” 

There are several lessons that can be taken from this story, not all of which are related to the men’s rights movement. The one most often taken isn’t the one that stuck with me the first time I read it. It is not merely that yes, one person can make a difference, but that the difference you make is under your control. 

That seemingly tiny distinction is the seed hope from which all activism stems - the realization that we do not have to be part of the problem, that we do not have to passively label the problem inevitable, and that we do not have to spend our lives treading water while the problem rolls over us time and again. We can, upon identifying the it, take measures to mitigate or solve it. 

We can also take a lesson from the common oversimplification of Eiseley’s story in motivational speaking. 

While assuring people of the difference their individual efforts can make is an admirable goal, it’s not an end-goal. It’s a starting point. 

For instance, what if we compare this story to the field of medicine. We could say that Oncologists are star throwers, their careers dedicated to stemming cancer’s deadly tide one patient at a time. Their work is genuinely admirable, and the world would be a scarier and more painful place without them. There is no question that striving to treat cancer and extend the lives of patients under treatment for it is an admirable career.

Still, we don’t shame laboratory researchers who seek a cure for the disease because their work isn’t the practice of cancer treatment. We don’t consider charities that fund cancer treatment or research to be so detached from the patient as to be unhelpful. Nobody’s suggestion that focus on prevention should be eliminated to redirect one’s energy to treatment would be widely taken seriously. We value every effort that puts itself between humanity and death by cancer, just as starfish, were they similarly sentient, might value an inventor of a device to stop them from getting stranded on the beach in the first place, or the operator of one that would assist them in returning themselves to the sea whenever they find themselves out of water.

Men’s issues advocacy somewhat changes the story. We’re starfish throwers on the same beach where the professional shellers bent on their harvesting oppose our efforts, all in the midst of a social storm that pounds men against the ground with punishing force. 

Still, we are not working with helpless, directionless creatures totally at the mercy of their environment and our intervention. Often, they are going to pick themselves back up and move themselves back to where they need to be, and just need the right tools to accomplish that. 

Our best chance of lasting impact is to provide those tools, but also to strive to change the way the entire tide flows, to change the ratio of throwers to shellers on this beach, and to mentally arm the altruistic for defense against those shellers when they oppose such reforms. While individual men’s situations matter, and individual men do need support, until those things happen, the individual cannot be the focus of every individual thrower. 

If all we ever do is try to address individual circumstances one man at a time, we will lose dozens for every one we are able to help, and that help will diminish into nothing under the onslaught of a merciless tide of social attitudes, unfair law and policy, and the aggression of shellers whose livelihoods are threatened by our efforts. 

This is the breach into which the Honey Badger Brigade steps. We and others like us pursue strategy in our activism, in the hope of paving the way for social evolution. We fight the tide of apathy and antipathy faced by men and boys, hoping to make knowledge and understanding the men’s human rights movement’s bulwark against hostility. We fight for a world that doesn’t respond to compassion for men and boys as if it is madness, or a sin. That is our motivation… the foundation of our mission, and the basis of our mission statement, which can be found at

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