A friend of mine always stops at homemade lemonade stands. Little kids peddling exorbitantly priced cold beverages spark within her a desire to support the brave, entrepreneurial qualities in our younger generations. Not me. I speed right by those things. I’m the type of person you don’t want to run into if you’re selling homemade goods, broken down on the side of the road, or looking for your beloved pet turtle.
I’m a stickler about following a schedule, and I tend to get testy when thrown off course. But, in the scheme of things, what do I really have going on that I can’t reschedule, or cancel if something pressing pops up? Right? Still, whenever I see someone in need, I always assume someone else will come along (or that someone already has), and more help isn’t really necessary.
Admittedly, this is a shitty, unhelpful outlook. And I have no idea why I cling to it so tightly, particularly when my life is richly blessed with so many people who act the opposite – who stop at lemonade stands, lend a hand on moving day, or take the kids at a moments’ notice when I’m hospitalized with flu. I’m surrounded by good Samaritans, and yet I’m slow to return the favor, or pay it forward. I’m hesitant to help you change that tire, or chase down your toddler headed for the street.
Or help you find that lost golden retriever. Out for a jog today on the exceptionally beautiful Blue Mountain trails of Missoula, I passed an older gal meandering along the rocky path with a ginger-haired Labrador in tow. She spoke pointedly into the cell phone plastered to her ear, but didn’t appear particularly rattled, and she was headed in the opposite direction, so I continued on my way.
I’d planned to run just one quick, short loop and then return home to write, but when I arrived back at the parking area at bottom of the trail, I threw scheduling to the wind and rounded back up the mountain (after a quick stop at the outhouse, of course, since two pregnancies apparently shrunk my bladder to the size of a sesame seed). At the midway point of my loop, there she was again, wandering through the tall grass in an especially memorable neon-yellow windbreaker.
Now off her phone and wearing a distinct look of concern, she motioned to me as I snaked up the road in her direction. I slowed to a stop and casually removed my ear buds. “Have you seen a golden retriever wandering around?” she asked. Although her face seemed worried, her voice was oddly calm.
“I haven’t! Did you lose her?” What a dumb question. Isn’t it funny, the rote reactions that emerge from us when we stumble across something out-of-the-ordinary? A stocky, sunburned gentleman in flowered board shorts loped past us as the woman gave me a brief rundown of the situation: her dog, a 12-year old golden retriever who answers to the name Zoe and sports a pink collar, had somehow wandered off the trail and into the thick of the trees. I listened carefully, asked questions, and shared an unhelpful anecdote about a friend who’d also lost his dog on this mountain and eventually found it (after three days, but I thankfully had the presence of mind not to mention that part). Ultimately, we parted ways with my assurance that I’d “keep my eyes peeled.”
Picking up my pace and replacing my headphones, I felt a definite tug on my conscience, a familiar and gentle weight on my chest accompanied by a voice in my head whispering, help her… help her… Immediately, the excuses poured forth as I argued with my own mind. I’ve got writing to do… I have a schedule to keep… this is my only uninterrupted day without kids… I still need to squeeze in grocery shopping and Costco… and finally, the old standby: someone else will surely help.
All the way down the mountain, I rode my thoughts like waves, back and forth, back and forth. I thought of my friend who stops at lemonade stands, of a guy I knew back in grad school who helped anybody and everybody without hesitation. I thought about my alleged “schedule,” and how working flexible hours is pointless if I can’t shift things around to help a fellow human in need. I thought about the kind of person I wish I were, the kind of people I hope my kids will one day be, and how disappointed I’d feel if they’re the sort that just speeds by, too busy or self-involved to lend a hand. And I thought about the time that our dog, Charlie, escaped the confines of our backyard fence and decided to explore the nearby highway – how thankful I’d felt that there were still people in the world who stopped, checked his collar, called his owners, and returned him safely.
By the time I reached the parking lot, I’d made my decision. Rounding back up the trail a third time, I met the Miss Neon halfway up the hill. She needed to head into work, so I explained I’d stay for a bit and continue the search. She provided me her name and phone number, thanking me as we again separated, and I began combing the thick brush for the elusive Zoe.
I jogged one trail, then another. I stopped complete strangers to ask if they’d keep an eye out. I puffed up my energy with thoughts of finding the dog, taking her home for the day, eventually returning her to a grateful owner who just so happened to be a famous publisher, rewarding me with a book deal for my faithful efforts (hey, it could happen). An hour passed, and I headed back to my car empty handed, wondering if the outcome would have been different, had I stopped to help sooner.
I waited in the parking lot for several minutes, guzzling water and hoping to catch a glimpse of a white-faced, golden-haired canine strolling through the weeds. With no luck, I finally sent a text to Zoe’s owner: I didn’t find her, but I asked folks to keep an eye out, and posted on Facebook for friends who hike the mountain today- I’m sure she’ll turn up! After a short pause, her response appeared: Zoe was at the bottom of the trail waiting for me- thanks so much for your help!
Starting up my car, I eased out of my parking spot, shaking my head in wonder. The cynic in me grumbled, See? THIS is why we don’t help strangers – we end up looking like idiots and wasting our precious time! But oddly enough, I didn’t feel angry. I felt proud of myself, glad that I’d tried something new, escaped my comfort zone, and set my own agenda aside for someone I didn’t know. The philosopher in me desperately searched for a reason that might make my efforts worthwhile – perhaps my soul needed another hour in nature, one that I wouldn’t have allowed myself without a good excuse? Maybe my spirit needed a little growth exercise in practicing compassion? Maybe the “lesson” of the day wasn’t intended for me, but for Miss Neon, who needed a reminder that there are still good people in the world, ready and willing to help? (And, conveniently, doesn’t that make me look pretty damn virtuous?)
Or maybe, just maybe, not everything in life happens for a reason. Maybe sometimes, your car dies, or your dog runs away, and there isn’t necessarily a lesson in it. Maybe sometimes, things just happen to you. And when they do, it feels pretty good to be the kind of person who offers you help. At least for today.
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