“Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you’ve fed him for a lifetime.”
This quote, usually identified as a Chinese proverb, readily evokes a hearty “Amen!” from just about every person who hears it, at least from church-going types who evoke amens.
The logic is sound. Simply extending charity, i.e., food, clothing, shelter or money day after day after day to meet personal needs only solves immediate problems. Through job training, education, mentoring, etc., people in need can become self-sufficient and may no longer require charity at all.
The proverb is no magic wand, of course. The words have no power to act on their own. Ideas — even great ideas — require intentional implementation and outright effort.
The saying isn’t really about seafood, freshwater fish from streams or even pond-raised catfish, nor is it really about catching fish.
The proverb is directed not to the person in need but to people, institutions and perhaps governments in a position to take any one of several actions to help the needy. The proverb is directed to the “haves,” not the “have-nots.” Or those with potential to help those in need.
The quote is not unlike some of the advice in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs. It states a principal in cause-and-effect form. It calls for the reader to act wisely, but it does not come with a detailed instruction manual.
The average modern-day listener — assigned the task of following the quote’s prescription — would find the actual cure more complicated than it might seem on the surface.
One of the first questions a “have” might ask himself is whether the average “have-not” has any interest in not only learning but taking on self-sufficiency. Too many “haves” believe they already know the answer without asking, and it is not a flattering assumption.
“Haves” that are more inclined to discount “have-nots” outright — including some people with the power and resources at hand to implement positive changes — tend to paint the needy with a broad brush. “They don’t want to work,” such people charge. “They are happy living off the rest of us.” Some add, “They are content being poor.” But that exposes an up-front problem. Too few “haves” and “have-nots” even know each other personally, so neither is fully aware of what the other side really thinks or feels about such issues.
In America, primary and secondary schools are among the few places where these two divergent economic and social groups interact, often in private education but even more often in public schools. Their paths often veer off in opposite directions after that.
Fishing is an apt analogy. Most people have witnessed a father (or mother) teaching his/her son or daughter how to fish for the first time. Getting over some fears about handling bait or of grasping wet, squirming fish when they are caught takes time and determination for a youngster. Plus, casting and reeling techniques require considerable repetition and at least moderate skill development.
Watching such teaching sessions — whether they involve fishing or anything else — can be entertaining. The best outcome of such training/learning efforts is an enhanced relationship between parent and child. Young people learn something about a parent, like patience and understanding (or impatience and anger). Parents observe some things about their children, like how they respond to instruction and handle inevitable frustration. Spending time together helps all parties better understand each other. The setting also enables conversations that might not happen otherwise.
“Haves” and “have-nots” tend to live in different worlds, often even when they are in close proximity, such as in churches.
The best application of the Chinese proverb may not be in government programs. Ultimately, it is most successful when the commitments of all parties are strong, when people listen to each other, when understanding and trust develop, etc. The understanding and trust elements are critical if training and mentoring — however achieved — result in life-changing experiences like relationships, meaningful employment and hope.
The real question may not be whether or not the “have-nots” are willing “to learn to fish” but whether or not the “haves” among us are willing to share our “angling” skills with them.
Helping others in this way isn’t always easy, but it isn’t rocket science either. It happens in church-related contexts more than most of us know, but not nearly as much as it could.
Bill Webb is editor of Word & Way.