Do you know this story, “A Single Starfish” by Loren Eiseley?
–One day an old man was walking along the beach. It was low tide, and the sand was littered with thousands of stranded starfish that the water had carried in and then left behind. The man began walking very carefully so as not to step on any of the beautiful creatures. Since the animals still seemed to be alive, he considered picking some of them up and putting them back in the water, where they could resume their lives.
The man knew the starfish would die if left on the beach’s dry sand but he reasoned that he could not possibly help them all, so he chose to do nothing and continued walking.
Soon afterward, the man came upon a small child on the beach who was frantically throwing one starfish after another back into the sea. The old man stopped and asked the child, “What are you doing?”
“I’m saving the starfish,” the child replied.
“Why waste your time?… There are so many you can’t save them all so what does it matter?” argued the man.
Without hesitation, the child picked up another starfish and tossed the starfish back into the water… “It matters to this one,” the child explained.–
That’s how I feel about worms. You know, after a rainstorm the parking lots are filled with worms which, drowning in the soggy ground came out onto the concrete only to die in the sun or continue drowning in puddles. So, I go around picking them up. I take them to “higher ground” and cover them a bit with dirt or leaves hoping they recover; giving them a chance at recovery, anyway.
I once read of a Buddhist temple being built; the excavation was a long, tedious, process. The monks were preparing the land by hand—I picture the tedious clearing of an archaeological find—so they could gently transplant each creature in the dirt (worms!) to a new home. In the Buddhist tradition, every being is a mother, a father, a sibling, a son/daughter, or a friend. All life has value. All life is sacred…even worms.
I even have “pet” worms. Yes, I vermiculture. Worms eat my garbage. What is this affinity that I have with worms? I did not always feel this way about worms.
In a snow storm this past winter, which dumped inches-to feet-of snow on the northeast, I was walking to my back door and found a worm on the sidewalk. “What! You are quite out of place!” I said to my little friend. But I had a dilemma: snow on the ground, worm on the sidewalk. What do I do? If I put him back into the “grass” he will freeze. There was no higher ground, no safe place where I could put him outside; what do worms do in the winter, anyway? So I took him inside and placed him (it?) gingerly into the dirt of my Christmas cactus.
The following internal dialogue ensued:
“You have just made yourself responsible for this life. You took him out of his natural environment and placed him in an artificial environment. How are you going to provide what it needs to live?”
-“I have no clue, but I couldn’t leave him outside; he would have died”
“What do worms eat (I know what my red worms eat—my garbage—but this is an earthworm, they are different [or are they?]) How much water does he need?”
-“What if you put too much water in the plant and he drowns?”
“There is probably enough organic material in the dirt to feed him, but maybe I should put some organics in the plant. How do I even ‘check’ on him to know if he’s all right?”
And so on.
So I did a good deed. I saved a worm from dying in the snow. Or did I? What if he dies at my hands? I am responsible.
“But he surely would have died had you left him outside.”
-“You are giving him a chance.”
“Is the chance better than the inevitability of his fate outside?”
-“Is death a bad thing?”
Some people believe that death is a transition into a new life. Some believe that the death of the body is not “death” for the soul lives on. Some people believe that people are “born again” into a new body (reincarnation) or into a life of spirit. Some people believe that death is the end, done, finis (but since you are dead, you don’t care!). So why is death a measure of whether or not the deed is good? How do we know?
How do we know when a good deed is really a good deed? What if our intervention causes more harm than good? How do we know?
When I was about 8, I had a guinea pig. I was an industrious and caring youngster and wanted my guinea pig to be happy and to live in a nice environment. So I cleaned his cage…with bleach…or ammonia, I don’t remember which. The fumes of my eager cleaning lingered in the small glass tank; my guinea pig died.
Eagerly well-intentioned, but ignorant, I was a child. How could I have known that I was going to kill my guinea pig?
How do I know if I haven’t killed my worm-friend?
-“But you are well-intentioned.”
“But is that enough?”
We never know, do we? We never know if we create more harm than good, even when well-intentioned. The nature of ignorance is ignorance: the blind spot that prevents us from knowing everything about everything and not knowing that we don’t know. Only in omniscience can we make perfect choices. And I am certainly not omniscient. So I have to live with my ignorance…and my questions…and sometimes my guilt.
So I remind myself that I am doing the best I can. I remind myself that there are parts of me, like that child, that just don’t know any better, and I forgive myself my ignorance. I clear my head, listen to my heart, and strive for the best for all, and continue to pick up worms after a rainstorm.