Monday, April 03, 2006

Teach a Man to Fish

There are a lot of sayings that have been handed down through the years that, when spoken, seem to embody a certain truth. Short and sweet and true. They seem to contain a pure sort of truth that is hard to find anywhere else, maybe because other sources tend to be long-winded with qualifications and exceptions. The proverb (or bon mot or whatever) is not weighed down by excessive verbiage. As such, it is easy to take in, to reflect on, to reflect in its simple truth. And here's one that popped into my head as I was sitting, watching tv, wallowing in self pity:

Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for the rest of his life.

If you give a homeless man a dollar, he will most likely drink for the rest of the day. But what if you help him in a more substantial way; what if you teach him how to work and be self sufficient?

I think, from my limited experience, that most public service ventures seek to teach, to really change lives. But I think that experience has shown me that again, when you boil truth down to a sentence, when you distill out the "except fors" and the "but not ifs," when you simplify in order to bypass reason and appeal to emotions, what you are left with is incoherent nonsense.

The thing is, a man has to eat every day. A man's body burns calories, it takes in nutrients and expels waste. Every step a man takes requires the contraction of muscles and the expenditure of ATPs or some such nonthing. A man without a daily supply of fish can walk only so many steps before his belly distends and he falls to the ground.

The other thing is, teaching takes time. It takes time to learn the multiplication tables. It takes time to understand that a wood conditioner with stearates will reject a polyurethane. It take time to teach and learn. But if a man cannot go long without fish, how can he stay standing long enough to learn?

So you give a man a fish, and you teach him how to fish. Simple solution. But the whole point of the original proverb is that if you give a man a fish, he won't learn to fish because he doesn't have to. So if the teacher gives fish to the student while the student learns to fish, will the student ever even learn to fish? There is no necessity to learn. As long as I stay in school, the loans stay in their deferment phase. Why graduate?

And what if the lesson to be learned takes a generation? Or two? We can't stand by and let a man die because he doesn't have any fish. We know how to fish after all, and we have so many goddamned fish we're feeding some of our fish to other fish to get better tasting fish! But if we give a man a fish, he'll never be able to get his own fish. And now we've got so many damn fish we can start feeding fish raised on fish to other fish! We've got fish all over the goddamned floor and in the rafters and we're almost drowning in fish! But this sonofabitch can't even catch one! we start to wonder. If it's so easy for me to catch these fish, these fish that are jumping into my boat, I'm not even going to waste my time trying to teach some homeless guy how to catch one. If he can't do it himself, I sure as shit can't teach him!

But we're all human beings. And if we're not human beings, at least we're mammals. And if not that, then vertebrates. And if not that, we all come from the same protein, which, against significant odds, came to be and began to reproduce and pass on genetic instructions which gradually mutated and were passed on and on. And here we are, humans and otherwise. Our being here is so improbable that just looking at each other we should smile and think, "You have got to be kidding me."

But we let people who can't fish starve. We let them wallow in their crapulence, thinking either, "Poor bastard," or "lazy piece of shit." Sometimes, in the past mostly, we have prevented people who know how to fish from teaching other to fish, from passing on their knowledge. And sometimes people know how to fish but can't get to water, or maybe we stopped them from getting to water. And sometimes they have all the fish they need, but I just can't live eating fish every day of the week. And so people don't get any fish and they die. Or they get fish and they still die.

So a lot of people wonder, Is it even worth it to try to teach people to fish? Or, Is it worth it to give them fish? Or, If I give them fish, aren't I really just hurting them in the long run, taking fish away from their children and grandchildren? We can't be giving people fish for the rest of eternity, can we?

Who knows? I don't. In fact, I don't really know much of anything else. But sometimes, almost always at night, I wonder about it. And I have never come up with an answer. And I never will. But I'd rather give a man a fish than watch him die.

So I've rambled, as I do, and I guess the point is that if a succinct statement seems to really strike at the heart of the matter, to sum up in one bite-sized piece what intellectuals spend our tax dollars debating and arguing about, it's probably more complicated. In fact, it's probably so complicated that it can't be answered.

Notes to readers:
1) The above passage contains some curse words.
2) It's late at night and I tend to exercise less judgment at night.
3) Even if this post sounds stupid to me tomorrow, I won't remove it. The fact is that I never read anything that I've written for fear of discovering how stupid I sound, so it probably won't sound like anything to me tomorrow.


Blogger Matt said...

So if we could boil this down, we could boil it down to tough love vs nurturing love.

So Daddy wants you to learn self reliance and to be able to achieve things on your own, never falling into the habit of depending on other people.

Mommy wants to smother you with loving and make sure that you don't suffer, that you know you needn't worry because you're always loved.

Is it worse to have a child who turns on you for your distance, whose ego drives the child to think itself an island, where it can do whatever it wants, including bad things...


to have a child spoiled and doted upon, unable to do anything for him or herself because he or she needs the parents' love always.

Or is the problem that I've set out above one really about narcissism.

In that case, I kind of tend towards the latter. I think of all the good things about my mother. She's not as verbal a person, I suppose, as my father, but she always listens and lets you know that she wants to hear what you have to say. In some ways, it's like she's the matrix in which the family grows and stays attached to each other.

Which sounds incredibly passive, and to some extent it is. Still, when I think about what kind of parent I want to be and when I think about what kind of friend I want to be to others, it's usually in these terms - being completely selfless, being available to other people. At least that's the ideal, I guess (and one of the reasons that I think I originally found Buddhism so appealing - the notion that the distinction of observer from what's observed may be a spurious one, and all that).

Of course, I don't know whether I meet that goal (and nobody should take this as an invtiation to opine on this matter), nor whether this is the path to happiness (see my relationship with my downstairs neighbor).

3:11 PM  
Blogger Xeno said...

I just have to point out that the odds of life are 100% bieng as that it happened. Pluss the recent experimental crash of a probe into a comet has shown that protins are present in their makup.

As to fish what if I give a person a finsh , teach him to fish and make him then use that skill to pay me back my fish plus fish interest, hehehe.

6:46 PM  
Anonymous Leo said...

I just wanted to point out that it is very hard to drink for a day on one dollar.

9:40 AM  

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