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July 23, 2014

Starfishes

   
    When I was younger, I encountered this story about a man who saw a young boy on a beach. The man noticed the young boy was throwing starfishes back into the ocean. The poor creatures were caught by the low tide and fearing that they would die, the young boy would pick them up and throw them back in to the waters. The man asked the young boy what he was doing. Of course, we all know the flow of the conversation afterwards. The story was about making a difference.

      I could imagine that boy growing up (we all grow up) and perhaps looking back on that encounter on the beach, his perspective could probably have morphed into something different. He would probably have asked himself if it was really worth throwing back those starfish. Or perhaps, was it really the best use of time.

      There was a time that such a young boy lived in me. It was with the same fascination and passion that led me to choose the path of public service through public health, spending almost 3 years of my life as a doctor to the barrios, and another 3 years of being a public health advocate working for an NGO. For the past 6 years I have been throwing a lot of starfishes thinking similarly with that young boy in the story: that I was making a difference for each of those starfish thrown.

       Unfortunately, like all young boys do, I have grown up enough to ponder on the actions and choices made. Did I really make a difference? The current reality can be very frustrating. The perceived impact appears to be only a blip in a spacious Universe. The challenges are never-ending and yet the rewards are scarce. To make matters worse, there are collateral damages that are valuable to sacrifice. There are small victories and yet the sacrifices are huge the gains appear minuscule and could hardly recompense.

      I made two columns the other day, one column labeled "Rewards" and the other column labeled "Sacrifices". The latter seemed to have a much longer list.

      Ours is but a thank-less job with high aspirations to the point of almost being quixotic even. Because of its idealistic nature, a few would say our work makes us modern-day heroes. At some point in my life I made myself believe that I was. However, in recent days, the belief is beginning to be questioned. I ponder on the thought that perhaps this idea of making a difference, of being a "hero", wells up from narcissism more than authentic altruism. It started as a genuine desire to make a difference, but judging by the way things have been laid out, it looks like not much of a difference has been made. Worse, even in the shadows of the thought having made a difference, it has simply gone unnoticed.

      It also appears that this "misadventure" has become too costly a price. For the past 7 years, I have been mostly away from family. The pay does not commensurate with the work. The frustration has made so many indelible scars some of which have yet to heal. All I wanted was to live out a passion that now appears to be out-of-style in the contemporary world.

     Perhaps, I have spent too much time picking up starfishes on the beach. Perhaps it is time to do other things like build sandcastles or swim out into the waters or even just lay still on the sands, soaking up every sunlight there is to catch until one turns dark.

    A moment of discernment is warranted.

    Whatever wisdom there is to find after such a moment, one thing is certain. There are no regrets. At least I could tell myself that I have done whatever I could to contribute to the development of public health in my country. After all, one can only do so much. It is only so frustrating that after all that's been said and done, so little difference has been made. Perhaps, so little have heard what was said and fewer still are those who have felt what was done.

     Well, I am no hero and it looks like I haven't really made a difference. I am happy nonetheless for the wonderful journey. Somehow I am reminded by Constantine Cavafy's Ithaca. "When you set out for Ithaka, ask that your way be long, full of adventure and full of instruction...Have Ithaka always in your mind. Your arrival there is what you are destined for. But don't in the least hurry the journey....Ithaka gave you a splendid journey. Without her, you would not have set out. She hasn't anything else to give you. And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn't deceived you. So wise you have become, of such experience, that already you'll have understood what these Ithakas mean."

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