Helping Others: A Lesson From My Dad

Growing up with a dad who likes to get stuff done, weekends were often dedicated to projects: painting, fixing, cleaning, raking, shoveling, moving, mowing, washing, clearing. To a kid who just wanted to go play baseball at the school with friends, weekends at home could be frustrating.

I remember a time I was probably eleven or twelve. My family lived in a two-story home in North Dakota and my room overlooked the back yard from the second floor.

It was a Saturday morning and I woke to the sounds of grunts and scraping metal from the yard below me. Anticipating that these were the sounds of my dad already “up and at ‘em,” and not wanting to take part in whatever “work” was beginning in the back yard, I shrunk up under my covers and tried to drown out the noise.

Soon the grunting led to swearing and the sound of a chainsaw. And more scraping metal.

Despite my desire to hide from the work, my curiosity got the best of me. I sat up in bed and, carefully with two fingers, parted the blinds in my bedroom window in order to catch just a sliver of a view of whatever work was going on down below.

What I was able to gather through the blinds was this: From the tree in our neighbor’s yard a tremendous branch had fallen across the chain-link fence, garage, and patio. My dad, in the early morning, was attempting to dislodge the massive tree from the fence so that it could be cut down and removed in pieces. Clearly, he was having difficulty extracting the tree from the fence; the branches were caught and tangled in the fence’s chain links.

Perhaps it was just bad timing, or perhaps he had been waiting for precisely this moment. But for whatever reason, it was during the exact three seconds that I decided to peer stealthily through a tiny crack in the blinds of my bedroom window a story above that my dad stopped what he was doing and gazed up at the house directly at me.

We locked eyes for an eighth of a second before I snapped the blinds shut and flopped back into bed.

I didn’t hear any noise for a while.

Then I heard the back porch screen door open. Then the back door. I heard heavy footsteps across the kitchen floor. Then I heard the footsteps turn and march slowly up the stairs and stop outside my bedroom door. I heard my dad walk in.

Stupidly pretending I was still asleep, I turned and looked up at him groggily. “Dad?”

He said: “Toby, didn’t you see that I could use some help out there?”

In retrospect I suppose I had some options.

I could have lied outright and ignored what I had seen:

“Oh no, Dad. Were you outside just now? I guess I didn’t see you.”

I could have acknowledged him, but then questioned the legitimacy of his work:

“Yeah, Dad, I saw you. But why are you messing with that tree branch? Is it really that big of an issue? There will always be fallen tree branches. Why not just let nature run its course and go do something fun?”

I could have acknowledged him, but then contended that I wasn’t suited for the work he was doing:

“I saw you and I really applaud your efforts out there. I wish I could help. But the branch looks much too big for you to handle. And if it’s too big for you, it’s definitely too big for me. Getting rid of trees just isn’t really my area.”

I could have acknowledged him, but then claimed that the tree was not our problem:

“I saw you. Why are you breaking your back to fix a problem you didn’t create? We didn’t cause the branch to break. Hell, it’s not even our branch but the neighbor’s. Get them to come remove it. If we didn’t cause the problem why should we have worry about fixing it?”

I could’ve said any of these things, but I’m glad I didn’t. In any case, I couldn’t think of a better answer quickly enough, so when my dad asked me if I had seen him working outside in the yard, all I said was, “Yes.”

And my dad sort of paused, probably hoping I’d make the connection before he had to spell it out for me.

“If you see someone who needs help with something, isn’t that enough to make you want to?”

I probably did get up and help remove the tree from the yard. But I certainly remember feeling the weight of my dad’s lesson about helping others.

It’s simple. If we see someone who needs help with something, isn’t that enough to make us want to help if we can?