The Specific Vs. The Transcendent

I am quite sure you have heard the classic story about the little boy and the starfish.

If you haven’t here’s a quick synopsis:

A little boy saw countless numbers of starfish washed-up on the seashore. So the boy started throwing as many starfish his small hands could grab back into the water.

An older man who watched criticized the boy saying, “There is too much! You will never be able to make a difference!”

At that point, the young idealist threw yet another starfish back into the sea and said, “I did for that one!”

Aside from a heartwarming story, what we have here is a conflict between two powerful realities:

The Specific and the Transcendent

Each ocean farer had a different view on reality.

The older gentleman saw the mass of starfish as whole (Transcendent), while the boy saw the plight of each individual starfish (Specific).

When dealing with the complex task of navigating issues such as bigotry, discrimination, racism, and other isms, it is easy to become so focused on the size of the problem that we become paralyzed.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Let me give you a real world example.

A few years ago I was recruited by an educator who was frustrated with the lack of male teachers of color in her school district.

But rather than wring her hands and shout at the system, she started a reading mentoring program called, “Be the Dream”.

“Be the Dream” recruits black men to read children’s books to elementary school children so students have positive role models and experiences that contradict the negative stereotypes that so often surround African American males in modern society.

As a result, I have been reading to 2nd and 3rd grades for the last 5 years.

And it has been awesome.

Though she was deeply cognizant of the immensity fo the problem (Transcendent), she used the power that she had to influence those that she could (Specific).

This isn’t to say that the transcendent isn’t immensely important.

Tsunami sized challenges must be urgently addressed.

Transforming cultures, systems, and institutions is a vital part of the change maker’s vision.

One reality can’t obscure the other.

We make dents in the transcendent by being diligent with the specific.

We have energy for the specific when we realize we are shifting the transcendent.

So keep your eyes on bigness of the ocean sized task.

Then grab the nearest starfish and toss it right back into the sea.

Julian NewmanComment