Teaching people to fish: timing is everything

I often hear tMaslows-Hierarchy-of-Needshat giving to charity keeps people in charity and that instead of giving (food, clothing, or $$ assistance), you need to TEACH them how to fish; but never hand out fishes.

I’m pretty sure the people who say this have never seen true hunger in the eyes of a child, or the fear in the face of a mother who doesn’t know where she’s going to find food or money to care for her children. I realize that there are cases where fraud is perpetrated by some who collect government assistance or charitable donations, but overwhelmingly, the people accepting food stamps, food bank groceries and other support are clinging desperately to the edge of survival.

As a health care practitioner I am familiar with Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ and I’ve often quoted it to explain why people are not able to learn how to fish if they are hungry, homeless and desperate. As a quick review, Maslow’s hierarcy posits that individuals must satisfy basic physiological, safety/security and love/belonging needs before they can focus on, or even consider, concepts like skill-development which can lead to recognition, advancement and eventually self-actualization.

As you can see from the graphic, Self-Actualization is that stage where one is motivated to reach his or her full potential and the stage right before (Esteem) is where Skill-Development occurs; in other words, they’re ready to learn how to fish by this 4th level! But these levels sit at the top of 3 other stages that must be fulfilled before skills can be developed and self-actualization can be realized.

Notice that the most basic and foundational level is that of physiological needs: the need for food, water, oxygen/breathing, homeostasis, etc. The next level up is the need for safety and security. People living in poverty are mired in challenges to meet these 2 levels of need. It’s highly unlikely that they could even process our best intentions to teach them how to fish, even if they could somehow find us, and trust me: when you’re facing dire circumstances like hunger, joblessness, and homelessness – you’re not looking around for a teacher; you’re looking for food, safety (home) and security (job).

I was pleased to see my perspective echoed by a writer I follow on LinkedIn, Bruce Kasanoff. In his article, “Do NOT Teach a Starving Man to Fish” he addresses the advice people often rush to give people in business who are failing, but his points ring true outside of the business world.

He emphasizes, “… few of us understand the anxiety, confusion, and uncertainty that comes with overwhelming need. People in the midst of personal disasters are reeling. They can’t think straight.”

We know from research that hungry kids cannot learn in school; why would we assume that hungry adults can suddenly adopt spiritual principles that will enable them to manifest food and prosperity? We shouldn’t because in a preponderance of the cases, they can’t – at least not as long as they remain hungry, homeless or desperate.

Learning to rely on God as the Source of all our supply is a pretty significant skill; it takes practice, commitment and some serious spiritual “chops”. It’s a fairly robust skill to develop for those of us who have the luxury of time to ponder in safe and comfortable surroundings with full tummies. As Maslow’s hierarchy illustrates, skill-development is not attainable in the absence of need fulfillment at the most basic levels.

Intentional and thinking people know that teaching people to fish is always the goal, but that they are not ready to learn if they are drowning in the desperation of hunger, poor health, joblessness, homelessness or the lack of other basic needs.

So the next time someone tells you that they don’t hand out fish, but prefer to teach people to fish; be kind. They simply don’t know what they are talking about. Pity them and move on, redirecting your energy into the many opportunities to do good work that are out there, and remember that the best life lessons are lessons of love. Pass on these lessons as a fish, a loaf of bread, some canned vegetables, or a donation to a local charitable agency.  And so it is.


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3 thoughts on “Teaching people to fish: timing is everything

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