September 7, 2007

Faith, Hope and Charity / David Siler

Gone fishin’: Proverb teaches love, compassion

The ancient Chinese proverb says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

I think we just say “ancient Chinese proverb” when we have a pretty neat saying and we don’t know where it came from. Regardless, I like this saying, but for Catholics I believe that it needs further exploration.

In our Catholic Charities programs and services, we recognize both elements of this proverb: If someone has no fish and they are hungry, we must feed them; and if they do not know how to fish, we must teach them.

When a person’s belly is empty, it is no time to stop and ask why they are hungry. We must first meet this immediate need and then begin to learn what is needed for them to stay well-fed and nourished.

God’s justice in our world would also have us ask many additional questions after our guest is well-fed for today and days to come.

We also need to ask, “Can our friend afford a fishing pole? Does she have adequate transportation to get to the stream to fish in the first place? If he learns to fish but becomes sick or disabled, who will catch his fish for him so that he can still eat?

“Is anyone polluting the river upstream from our hungry friend? Has someone put a net across the river and taken all of the fish? What if she has a learning disability and cannot learn to fish?

“Is anyone trying to keep him from getting to the stream to fish? What if she cannot catch enough fish for her entire family? What if there are no fish in this part of the stream?”

These are just some of the questions that make our seemingly simple proverb a bit more complex. The answer to just one aspect of poverty—hunger—is not as simple as a fishing lesson.

I often hear people, after climbing up on their very tall horse, say all kinds of judgmental things about our brothers or sisters in need. The most common, by far, is, “If they would just pick themselves up by their bootstraps and stop being so lazy, they would not be poor.”

I suppose that this advice might apply to some, but this judgment does not seem to come from a place of compassion and love—the kind that Christ demonstrated so well.

Another ancient proverb might help here: “Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.”

I have never had to walk in my bare feet because I could not afford shoes or had to walk in an old worn-out pair so I cannot say I have experienced poverty firsthand.

But our Catholic Charities staff and I walk alongside people every day with ill-fitting shoes or no boots at all (let alone the straps to go with them), and have learned that no two stories are alike and judgment does not buy a new pair of shoes—or lead to the Christ-like demonstration of love to give them the help they need.

(David Siler is executive director of the Secretariat for Catholic Charities and Family Ministries. E-mail him at †

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