Creative Redemption

This blog seeks to explore themes from the Bible, theology, spiritual formation, creativity, and responses to change and conflict to discover how to promote God's redemptive work in his creation.

What About Starfish Savers and Fishing Instructors?

In the process of considering the possibility of change on a deeper level, let’s consider two well-known analogies for making a difference in the world.

The first analogy presents a scene in which a boy is walking down a beach, picking up starfish that have washed ashore, and throwing them back into the ocean. A man who sees him remarks on the futility of the rescue operation because there are so many starfish on that beach, as well as many other beaches, and the scene is repeated day after day. “You can’t possibly make a difference,” says the man. Tossing back another starfish, the boy replies, “I made a big difference to that one.”

This story addresses several issues. On the one hand, it illustrates the magnitude of many problems, a reality that can easily overwhelm us and discourage us from attempting to do anything. At the same time, it holds before us the optimism of youth that can reinvigorate those of us who have grown cynical.

Primarily, however, the story reminds us of the power of small acts of kindness that may prove anything but small to their recipients. Jesus speaks of the value of “even a cup of cold water” given to a thirsty disciple (Matthew 10:42). Especially in times of crisis and immediate need, we should not overlook the opportunity to help, even as we are striving to bring about more substantive change.

The second analogy reminds us of the superiority of teaching a person to fish over giving a person a fish. This picture reflects some fundamental aspects of deeper change. As a proverbial statement, however, it compresses a large truth into a small package.

In unpacking that proverb, we first note that people may need to receive short-term assistance before they are in a position to learn how to fend for themselves. Furthermore, “teach a person to fish” makes the alternative to a handout sound simple, but the path to developing self-sustaining skills is frequently long and difficult. Hunger, for example, may represent only a single symptom of a complex set of problems extending beyond the hungry person’s lack of skills.

As long as we avoid a simplistic application of the fishing analogy, however, it can point us in a helpful direction.

Next: First Do No Harm

Single Post Navigation

2 thoughts on “What About Starfish Savers and Fishing Instructors?

  1. paul on said:

    A commentary on the fishing analogy, supplied by John Perkins, founding member of the Christian Community Development Association: “Some people say give a person a fish and he will eat for a day, but teach a person how to fish and she will eat for lifetime. Baloney!! The crucial question is Who owns the pond?” What does wisdom imply about making structural changes regarding poverty/hunger issues?

  2. Like so many areas, this is not an either-or situation. Of course, it doesn’t help to teach a person to fish if that person has no access to the waters where the fish live. Some people’s lives, however, could improve greatly by merely learning a new skill, whereas others also need help in getting their foot inside the door of opportunity, and still others have been so beaten down that they need new hope before anything else can happen. In some cases structural issues provide such a barrier that they must be addressed directly, but many Christians own businesses or hold other positions that allow them to erode prejudices through their employment practices or training programs. Delancey Street in San Francisco not only staffs its own businesses with former convicts trained in the program, but these businesses also fund Delancey’s ongoing work. “Teach a person to fish” remains a good principle as long as we apply it within a holistic healing process, and not as a shortcut that ignores the complexity of the larger problem.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: