The age-old adage of “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime” at first seemed to me to just be an excuse for not giving anyone your fish, implicitly saying, “handouts don’t help, but I don’t have the time to teach you.” And even giving a man a fish was often a way of buying his loyalty. Too often, fish was exchanged for power, resulting in relationships that were characterized by dependency. In these scenarios, giving food or money to the hungry and poor is really just a means to an end. These instances of giving do not aim at the restoration of dignity to the less fortunate, but rather, at the establishment of a relationship that favors those with resources.
But recently I began to view this old truth in a new light. By “teaching a man to fish” you not only feed him for a lifetime, but you allow him to contribute to his own livelihood and well-being. You empower him to do for himself. Even more important than this lifetime supply of fish is his participation in his own well-being. Flipping this power structure on its head are the ethics of empowerment. By empowering someone to fish for themselves, people can become self-sufficient and independent. In teaching a man to fish, and thus to provide for himself, the balance of power is restored and equality is once again a reality. He no longer has to rely on the whims or kindness of those with resources, but rather has the ability to provide for himself.
And as if dignity and equality aren’t enough, empowerment leads to benefits that are deeply connected to the human psyche. Humans have an intense desire to be of use. Employment is not merely about earning a paycheck– it is about the deeply human desire to want to contribute to the good of the community. This is one of the reasons why unemployment so often leads to depression. And this furthermore makes sense of the rather counterintuitive trend of depressed and anxious lottery winners. After winning the lottery, people often quit work because they no longer have a need for money. But in quitting work they unknowingly strip themselves of a source of identity and meaning. They are no longer producing anything for the community, no longer actively working for the good of others. They are no longer of use, and this is devastating to self-esteem.
Thus, teaching a man to fish is actually better than merely giving him a fish, but not just because you can feed him for a lifetime. It restores dignity to previously warped relationships and allows others to be of use, which on a very human level is just as important as fish.