I came across one such group recently: the inspectorate of the RSPCA in Queensland, Australia. For those of you who don’t know, the inspectorate are responsible for investigating claims of animal neglect and cruelty, and, in some cases, taking such cases to court.
The class I worked with was full of humour, a good-spirited bunch who pulled no punches and loved a bit of teasing and banter. But the difficulty of their work shone through in moments and it wasn’t just my eyes that filled with tears on some of their disclosures: being yelled at and abused by pet owners, having to remove animals from those deemed incompetent in care (despite, perhaps, the owner’s best and loving intentions) and (for one of the participants) euthanasing animal after animal after animal all in a day’s work.
At lunch, I complimented the group I was sitting with on “doing a fantastic job”. One of the women sighed heavily. “Sometimes that feels true” she said “and sometimes it feels like I just get my tiny little sliver of a toothpick and chip away at the ice-berg”.
I’ve come across similar feelings of overwhelm in other professions: police working with domestic violence and victim’s of crime units immersed in the ongoing awfulness of violence, attempts at justice and the impact of crime. In the face of such difficulties, what difference can the toothpick make to the ice-berg?
I remembered being in a similar state of overwhelm myself, when attempting to reach out to other survivors of domestic violence. A senior police officer, sensing my feelings of despair, told me the story of the starfish. Taking a breath I related the story to the women sitting at the table.
A man walked down to the beach one day when he saw an incredible sight. The entire beach was littered with starfish as far as the eye could see. As the sun was rising, the starfish were dehydrating, shriveling and dying.
The man was overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness. All of these starfish were dying in the sun!
Then he saw something else. It was another man who was picking up the star fish, one at a time, and throwing them back into the sea.
As he drew nearer, the first man asked “What are you doing?”
“I’m returning the star fish to the sea” said the second man
The first man scoffed. “There are too many, you idiot. How can you think that what you are doing could possibly make a difference?””
The second man didn’t pause. He picked up the next star fish, tossed it into the water and said “Oh yeah? I made a difference for that one”.
From the nods around the table, I felt that the story seemed to strike a chord and, although it is a little corny, I hope in some small way the starfish story helps them the way it helped me: to remember that every single star fish counts.