A Course in Catching Fish

My blog has long since become too voluminous for me to be able to determine whether I have already written about any given topic. In all probability, whatever the topic, I have. But my memory of having written about a subject may be a false memory; I may remember only having thought about the matter. With that as a means of introduction, let me record my thoughts on this quote, one of dozens of versions that articulate its sentiments:

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’m relatively certain I’ve written about this before. Probably quite recently. No matter. I’ll dwell on it again. I’ve found no consensus as to the origin of the quote, nor the concept behind it. The first references to some form of the sentiment seem to be from the latter part of the 1800s, in a novel by Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie. But there are plenty of other references to an “ancient Chinese proverb,” “native American sayings,” and other sources. Suffice it to say the idea has legs from a long, long way back.

The reason the quote is on my mind of late is this: I am writing an article on behalf of my church, with the intent that it be submitted for consideration of publication in the parent organization’s quarterly magazine. The article will deal with a computer refurbishing program. Old computers are solicited from various sources and are then rehabilitated by volunteers; new parts, new software (thanks to a licensing agreement with Microsoft), and such are installed and tested. Then, the computers are given to needy children, families, and (lately) seniors. The original idea was to give the computers to kids whose families could not afford them; the kids need computers to keep up with schoolwork and to keep abreast of technology in the twenty-first century. But the program was never intended to be simply a “give away” program. The idea was to enable children to become sufficiently computer-savvy so they could advance their own education and knowledge. By giving the kids the computers, the idea is that the children are being taught to fish.

At least that’s the theme I’m planning to use as the basis of my article. I’m meeting the program’s founding father for dinner this evening and will review with him my thoughts on how I plan to proceed. He’s the one who asked me to write the article, so he’s the one best equipped to tell me whether my approach runs parallel to his thinking. I hope we’re on the same track; I will find out this evening. This man and I have rather different ideas about people and politics. He is quite conservative in many respects, compared to my extremely liberal philosophies. Though I hold him in high regard, I disagree with him on many issues on many levels. Even on matters of humor, he and I differ rather radically. As an example of our differences, he recently sent a “joke” (he distributes jokes and memes on a regular basis) that he obviously thought was funny; it was (in my opinion) a crude and offensive attempt to mock people who are offended by this man’s idea of “political correctness.”

The set-up was this: a series of telegrams between President Truman and Generals Nimitz and MacArthur were exchanged in which MacArthur referred to the Japanese who were preparing to surrender as “yellow-bellied bastards.” Truman cautioned MacArthur to be careful not to be so politically incorrect. MacArthur asked what political correctness means, to which Truman responded:

“Political Correctness is a doctrine, recently fostered by a delusional, illogical minority and promoted by a sick mainstream media, which holds forth the proposition that it is entirely possible to pick up a piece of shit by the clean end!”

I replied to this man’s joke as follows:

“Perhaps a better term would be common human civility, explained as a doctrine promoted by honorable members of the media and decent people worldwide as a means of showing respect and tolerance, even for those with whom we fundamentally disagree.”

Obviously (at least to me), I found the joke in poor taste and offensive. But it occurs to me that the two of us possess some common sensibilities. We both find value in the computer rehab program. But I wonder how our perspectives on the program might differ? I see it in both practical terms and as illustrative of the sensitivity people have for people who are less fortunate. And I suspect he sees it in the same way. I know that this man is, in many respects, deeply sensitive; I’ve seen him shed tears when describing good people and their good deeds. Yet his appreciation for harsh, mocking, insensitive humor surprises me. It shouldn’t; I am absolutely certain I am equally as harsh, mocking, and insensitive on far too many occasions to be able to hold myself up as the poster boy for decency.

The bottom line for all this early morning thought-fest is that we are very different people who share some significant aspects of our personalities. And that’s probably true of most people, even people who camp at the extreme far ends of philosophical perspectives from one another.  This idea is not new to me; I recognize that people whose attitudes may seem harsh and cruel and utterly uncaring may simply have a different take on circumstances than I. For example, some people view poverty as the natural outgrowth of indolence, while I see it as the natural outgrowth of oppression by the moneyed classes; both of us may want to end poverty, but we have different ideas about how to do it. And in the case of the computer rehab program, I might be more aligned with the “conservative” camp than with the “liberal” camp; I don’t want to simply give people fish, I want them to learn how to set out lines themselves.  There’s a mid-range, of course, which is where I think answers may be found in almost every instance of deep philosophical dispute. Thinkers on both ends of the far fringes are insulated from reality; their (our) philosophies cloud their (our) vision.

If I had more energy and more influence, I might change the world in positive ways. But I lack both. I am not, nor will I ever be, a charismatic leader. That’s too bad; I think I have some pretty damn good ideas from time to time. Yet I’m preparing to write about people doing good work instead of actually doing the good work. There’s a disconnect in this scenario; an emphasis on thinking instead of doing. It’s good to think, provided that’s not the only thing one does.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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3 Responses to A Course in Catching Fish

  1. bev wigney says:

    I like your reply to the joke. I would have had a difficult time with that one!

  2. Thanks, Mick. I appreciate your encouragement.

  3. Mick Woods says:

    Good deed doers need a messenger. You are that messenger for this person & program. Good work.

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