An old (I believe it's Chinese) proverb of some sort says something to the effect of “give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for the rest of his life.” Or something like that.
We’ve all heard it a whole lot of times. I was helping a friend write a paper a month or so ago. I’m kind of anal when it comes to spelling and grammar and punctuation errors in writing, so after I basically picked his whole paper apart with a fine tooth comb and corrected all his errors, I sent it back to him. He texted me saying something to the effect of “wow, you’re feeding me; I’m not fishing,” in reference to that proverb. A week or two later, I was sitting in class and one of my classmates referenced the same proverb and how it relates to social work: that one of the purposes of social work is to teach people how to fish so that we do not have to do all their fishing for them.
I don’t know about you, but I know that I am in the best place to learn right after a good healthy breakfast while my belly is full. If I am hungry, I have a hard time focusing on the tasks of the day. I don’t disagree with the concept of proverbially teaching people how to fish. But I’ve often wondered if we occasionally allow someone to starve to death while they are learning. Case in point: I had a patient who refused to get medications that she needed because she couldn’t afford the $4 that her insurance didn’t cover. This was a little frustrating because the woman is spending probably a good $20 a week on gourmet cat food and kitty litter. I pondered bringing in some information on creating a budget and helping the women figure out where she could cut back. Problem was that helping an old women create a balanced budget wouldn’t make any difference if she didn’t get the medications that would keep her alive and healthy through the weekend.
As annoying as it is to me that people choose to put luxuries for their pets before necessities for themselves, teaching this woman how to prioritize financial resources and allocations (teaching her how to fish) needed to take a back burner to securing her needed prescriptions (giving her a fish).
I think that we do that at times. We spend so much energy focusing on the long range goals that we forget to make a plan for short term needs. Short term needs are important. They are what keep people around long enough to accomplish their long term goals. Maybe I shouldn’t have spent so much time fixing my friend’s paper. Maybe I should have sent him a grammar book and made him fix it himself. But if a good grade on a paper or two will give him the boost he needs to continue to progress in school, I feel it is worth it. Maybe I shouldn’t have helped that patient get her medications. But I feel it is necessary to keep patients alive first, and give them financial advice second.
Hmm… It gives me something to think about. Do I teach a starving man, or do I feed him first, then teach him while his belly is full?