Did you catch that fish?

We’ve all heard the old saying, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” How do you best help someone who is struggling? If third-world natives are living in poverty, should we send them money? Or could we teach them how to plant crops or provide a goat that will nourish their family and allow them to sell the excess milk? If an unmarried woman has a child, should we reward her for having additional children in the way of living quarters and medical care, or is there perhaps a better method for teaching responsibility? If a person is out of work, is it more helpful to once again extend benefits, or to teach more effective ways of finding or creating productive work?


Years ago, in Monterey, California, a crisis arose. Monterey had become a paradise for pelicans. After cleaning their fish, the local fishermen would throw all the excess waste to the pelicans. The birds soon became fat and lazy.

Eventually, a new market was found that could use the waste products commercially. The pelicans no longer had a free meal. Yet, the pelicans made no effort to fish for themselves. Generations had been trained to just wait and wait they did for the free handouts that never came. Many starved to death. They seemed to have forgotten how to fish for themselves.

There’s always free cheese in a mousetrap — Old Proverb

In our “instant” society it’s often easier and quicker for everyone involved to just “give” something. Teaching takes time and commitment. And catching fish requires baiting the hook, finding the right conditions, and waiting.

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19 Responses to “Did you catch that fish?”

  1. Onene Osila Oshoko Says:

    Yes, it is much better, wiser and rewarding to teach responsibility than to give handouts. There is the sense of accomplishment when you see a person that once was dependent on subsidy begin to fend for self and help others too.

  2. Liz Says:

    WOW, I just used that verse on a friend who asked for help and I was feeling guilty. She had her lights and phone turned off and wants hand-outs. I gave her some basic food (that I had in the house) so her kids wouldn’t go hungry but I told her that’s the last time. She complained that the agencies that give money make it so hard. I feel better after reading this. Change is hard but I know giving hand-outs won’t solve the problem. She asks for people to pray that God will help her. I told her that God wants her to do to His will and maybe she’s not listening. When you point your finger at other’s (for not helping in her case), three are pointing back at you. Thanks. I needed that.

  3. Drew Says:

    This is a great paradox. When there is an emergency – and lives are on the line, relief is an appropriate response. However, many relief agencies stick around too long and do more harm than good in the long run. Restoration and development are also needed. There is a new book about this called “When Helping Hurts” by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett that discusses this. Never do for others what they can do for themselves. If you do, you short-circuit that person’s or community’s problem solving. And listen – they are experts in what they need.
    Good book – helps direct the good intentions into appropriate channels.

  4. Marlan at RV52 Says:

    Maybe the pelicans were just regular old wage earners that went to university of west pelican, graduated with pelican honors, got a great pelican job at international fish cleanup corp (IFCC), but the economy hiccuped and IFCC outsourced the fish cleanup for a better deal. How dare they!

    If you think about it, even a steady job and the attachment to a certain lifestyle, can ‘freeze’ you ‘in place’. This story is as much about change as it is about hand-outs.

  5. Tony Says:

    The dependency mentality in the U.S. seems to be growing at a rapid rate. More people are depending on the government to provide for them. The role of government is not to take care of your every need from cradle to grave. I am not some right wing nut job, but it seems to me that it is being done on purpose. How else can you explain it? I am afraid that the present government is doing it’s best to maintain and create a “Dependency Class” of people. This way they are assured to stay in power if the majority of the population behaves like those pelicans. They are not going to vote out there meal ticket. Sorry to go all political. I enjoy the inspirational stories that you share with us. Thank you.

  6. Cathy Says:

    The societal problem with “the haves and the have-nots” rests in our thinking. Not to say that we are all “bird brains” like those pelicans, BUT we suffer from microwave mentality in a crock-pot world. Most of life’s benefits which are of value are the product of time and energy. However, expectations are for instantaneous gratification. Technology has helped us create generations of “I want it NOW” thinkers, unwilling or unable to commit the time and muscle to make it happen. Putting a halt to this cycle means taking time for each one to teach one – we must pay it forward in this way. Teaching, coaching and mentoring in a new way of thinking is the key!

  7. Marla Martenson Says:

    This is so true. In my own life I learned this the hard way when I was in credit card debt to the tune of 10,000. My husband could have easily bailed me out and paid the bill, but he refused which forced me to get moving and get responsible and pay it off myself. Now that I am debt free, there is no way I am going back to being in debt after all the hard work it took to get out of it.

  8. Kay Says:

    I found the other half of the story published in a funeral home newsletter:
    “Wildlife specialists were consulted about the issue and finally came up with a solution. They imported pelicans from another area. These birds still knew how to fish and were mixed in with the local pelicans. The new birds immediately began fishing for their own food, and it wasn’t long before the Monterey pelicans joined in and started fishing for themselves again.”

    Yes, there will always be freeloading types. Perhaps someone asking for a handout just needs direction, “inspirational food”, not exactly what they are asking. In the face of tragedy, a lot of people are scared and lost; any one of us would be too in their shoes. There are ways to be of help without creating an addict.

    Marlan, I like your point.

  9. admin Says:

    perfect example, welfare. its not helping the poor it’s hurting them. it’s keeping them poor for life.

  10. Tim Tully Says:

    At least in my state, in order to collect Unemployment, you must document 3 job search activities per week. It’s seems to be mostly about finding a job in the area you were just fired from; and should you be offered a job you don’t want and you refuse it, you risk losing Unemployment and paying money back. There is scarce little talk about passion or calling. It doesn’t feel like a handout, but it feels misguided somehow.

  11. Jean Burman Says:

    I agree with Kay and Cathy… and acknowledge that there is merit in what Tony has said. [Australian political outcomes have been determined for many years by the more than generous social welfare system here] It can and does happen. I too loved the missing “end to the story”. Most people want to learn another way [if only they knew how] as no-one in their right mind would really want to stay on handouts. We need more pelicans who can fish showing the other pelicans how to do it. Those who can… should teach. Win win situation for everyone.

  12. Tawanda Says:

    I like Marlan’s post. Just a thought tho, Im a native from the third world; taking up Kay’s story, why dont our first world expert fishermen bros come and stay with us show how to fish in our environment….

    Seems to me sometimes geographical location has a part to play. And there is a tendency to ask why, oh why, if there is no bread the natives dont eat cake?

    I think there are seasons and times when you have to go down to Egypt to buy grain.. when the famine is severe. We just request for fair trading practice when we do.

    But seriously, most of my fellow herdsmen here sitting with a whole kraal of livestock regard themselves as poor because they are regarded as poor since they dont earn a US dollar a day as per category; there is need to reclassify wealth and tell ourselves that wealth can be denominated in various assets like health, cattle, goats, peace, righteousness, experience, land.. we just need to know where, how and with who to trade the various assets to obtain necessary asset flow to meet our needs.

  13. Grace Says:

    You know,I had to come in and comment. I am from Kenya. Yes it is true that to this level, my fellow villagers, now want to think that we cannot help ourselves. That we need help from the US and the like. We are like those pelicans starving. And yes we do starve when weeds are growing in our gardens. It is time…

    Now that I have lived in the US, and I get so really stressed when I have to go shopping, since we are living on a stipend and the people back home are literally depending on us thinking we are floating on dollars. I know better. We are so rich in Africa, so rich, we just refuse to fish. Like Tawanda said being rich is defined as having electricity, a car, TV and someone in America to mix it up.

    In my village you can comfortably live in less than a dollar a day and be very comfortable. Have three meals with vegetable from your garden, milk from your cow and stories beside the fires. But that is defined as being poor. Living in poverty. They have no electricity and no running water. And the people are moving to the slums into some very filthy cholera like conditions to own a TV. Then now we have a new serious problem to deal with. Now, that is poverty. If you tell them go back to the village and have a goat with milk and sell the milk, they say they cannot go back to poverty!!!

    We did that with my bother inlaw and now he is back in the slum and anytime he has problem he calls us at 1am in the morning. If he was in the village just 100 dollars form us would buy him two goats and enable him do vegetable farming and keep his family healthy and clean. But no, that is defined by the UN and him as living in poverty.

    Now that I am here in the US, I am telling all my nieces and nephews; you got work hard and make your life yourself and you can do it. Help will not come from here, it will not.

    And yes, I agree,the aid to Africa is doing more harm than good in the long term. Dan I like what your son is doing in Rwanda, I am learning, and I hope to start some soap and natural skin care product making in my village, if they want to. As of now they are the fat pelicans, I was one of them. With my knowledge now, I need to be the new pelican who comes in and say you can do it….

  14. Joe Says:

    Great post! Our entire entitlement society needs the hear this message and take it to heart then maybe we can get out of the mess we are in!!

  15. Dan Miller Says:

    Thanks for your comments here. Grace, your insights into the realities of Africa are right on. It breaks my heart when rich Americans introduce people of other countries to “things” that are not required for healthy, simple living – and suddenly, those people wake up to the idea that they are poor.

  16. tt Says:

    There’s always free cheese in a mousetrap — Old Proverb

    Silly me – I also thought you could catch a mouse with cheese.
    It turned out you could catch the whole family (of mice) with peanut butter. True story from my old kitchen.

  17. Loren Says:

    I’m currently on disability after years of strugling to work productivly in any fashion. I know that sounds imposible to not be able to work in any fashion, but after three career attempts and seven companies late I finally declined to the point that personal maintenance wasn’t even a function I could perform. After being this way for 2 years I finally put aside my pride and applied for Social Security Disability, very humbling. Although I’m certainly glad to get some of my tax money back that will not be there when I hit retirement age, I have no plans, on this being a permanent position. I’m making improvements medically and working on a means of income that I can manage.
    I have had some help through a group in our church that is focusing on help its’ unemployed members see opportunities to produce an income by using our God giving skills as God wants them applied.
    If we believe in what our pastor calls GPS; God, people, service; and live it God will provide direction. (sorry for the run on sentence, but I are a engineer)

  18. tt Says:

    It is sad to know that when mistakes are made, instead of stepping forward
    and admitting that wrong was done, institutions as well as people would become very creative. Sending a woman to welfare because she had the courage to say no when the law of the land was bend, is a sign of a society which lost its values.
    Welfare was intended for people in need. Instead it became a sub division to a very creative sub culture society.

  19. Tawanda Says:

    @ Loren, i are also engineer, and really touched by your post. It is a humble post from the heart which speaks reality with ray of hope. i did allude earlier to fact that at times you do get severe famine in the land and have to go ‘DOWN to Egypt to negotiate survival and trade with Joseph’. What is striking about your situation apart from engineering humility is the ray of hope…without hint of giving up.

    I have been drafting a business plan for unemployed members of our local church to embark on micro-projects that are viable for our geographical (and politico-economic) environment. Starting broiler rearing projects, manufacturing concrete building products, raising goats and sheep for meat, wool, mohair and milk..you know, the usual rural setting third world stuff. Be encouraged.

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