I'm pretty good at taking a tough situation and looking for the life lesson in it. I try my best to keep the perspective that every quandary I find myself in is like school for the soul. And so when a stray dog held me hostage in a tree one morning while I was on a run, I challenged myself—from my lofty and leafy classroom—to figure out the possible lesson.
It was a brisk, sunny morning in my Southern Californian suburban neighborhood. I was running and my iPod was too loud to hear the dog coming at me. Something in my periphery made me turn my head. That's when I saw him. He was big, and running right toward me. All I could think about was how I would handle the pain when he bit me, and what my chances were of fighting him off before he ripped me apart. My fight or flight instinct kicked in. When I noticed the tree nearby, flight looked like the better option. The tree was tall—really tall, but climbing it would definitely be easier than trying to overpower this dog. I'd had at least five seconds of adrenaline rushing through me, and that ended up being enough to help me scale the big tree like a kid instead of the forty-something woman I am.
Perched in the heart of its thick branches, I had to catch my breath. Looking down and realizing how high up I was, I couldn't believe I'd actually climbed it. Fear had brought out strength I didn't even know I had in me. I almost wished my teenage kids could see what I'd managed to do, but the dog, who was now jumping at the base of the tree, reminded me that all things considered, this wasn't really a proud moment.
After a very long minute, the big dog finally gave up jumping. He sat down on the grass with his nose in the air, and just stared up at me, waiting. "Go," I yelled, pointing away. "Go, go, go!" His head tilted a little each time I shouted, but then went right back into place as he continued staring.
The tree stood in a quiet residential area, on the corner of a four-way stop. I'm tall, and I was wearing a bright turquoise top. There was little chance of me blending in with the tree. I was certain that someone would notice me and would stop to help. I was right on one account--I was noticed.
The first guy drove by, slightly slowing down, lowering his head to see me through the passenger side window. As his car eased on, he kept twisting his neck, as far as it would reach, to watch me. It was like he hadn't seen the dog and thought I'd climbed the tree for the fun of it. One misunderstanding was expected. I let it go and waited for someone else to show up.
It was a few minutes before another car drove by. The driver did a similar slow down and strain of the neck, but this one had a passenger who saw the dog. Still, they didn't stop to help. Blown away that they both passed me by, I gave a laugh. Where was the sense of neighborly support in my community? The astonished expression I wore must have been mistaken for a smile as the next car drove by and the guy seemed to smile back.
Apparently the dog was finally getting bored with me. He started roaming the grass area beneath the tree, smelling its history. When I heard the next car approach, I turned back to the street. The driver glanced up, and did a double take before quickly looking away, as if to mind her own business. Now it was getting kind of funny and I was wearing a legitimate smile. I was still annoyed that no one would help me, but it was hard not to see the humor in this awkward moment. A few more cars drove by, and keeping consistent with those before, none of them stopped either.
It took about fifteen minutes for the dog to finally venture far enough away so that I felt comfortable jumping down and running home. I'll admit I was still a little too anxious after the experience to ponder the life lesson right away. I just needed to talk about it. I told family and friends the story, and spoke of my disappointment over no one stopping to help. Most were too stuck on the humor of the situation to address my disappointment--until one friend posed the question: "But did you ask for help?" Ask? Why would I have to ask? Wasn't it obvious? That question stayed with me a while until something clicked. And the lesson began to unfold.
I never waved at any of the drivers or called out for help. I assumed they knew I needed help—I was up in a tree and a big dog was watching me from below—but what was obvious to me from my view apparently ended up looking like something else to outsiders. Who's going to stop for a lady in a tree, who seems to be smiling, while her dog waits for her below? People don' t like to interfere--especially if the person in the tree appears to be happy. Those drivers were probably more open to helping me than I give them credit for. I might have found out if I just asked.
This is not a story with a tragic ending. In fact, it's been a source of entertainment for my family and friends, but in its own creative way, it speaks to a more serious concept for those of us who don't like to ask for help. There are much more critical situations we could find ourselves in than my tree predicament, and yet others might not see that we need help. From deep within our own heads, our difficulties seem obvious. But the truth is, most other people are somewhere deep in their own heads too, with their own situations and distractions. They're not necessarily paying attention to the signs of our troubles, and so we can't expect them to just know we're in need. We have to make ourselves clear. If we want help, we should ask.
Once this lesson came to light, I tried practicing it with small requests. I was pleasantly surprised at how willingly people helped out when I made my needs clear. Asking didn't guarantee the response I wanted, but the odds ended up being significantly better than hoping someone could read my mind. Sometimes you just have to go out on a limb and ask for what you want. This revelation has given me a new take on the day the stray dog held me hostage in a tree. Had I waved my hands and mouthed the word "help" that morning, I have a feeling a car would have pulled over, and I might instead be writing an article about how kind and neighborly people are when you just ask them for a little help.
Every day I walk my three small dogs around the block. It never fails that my youngest, a Shih Tzu named Littles, becomes Mr. Fearless when we get to one particular fence. Just as we round the second corner of our walk, Littles lowers his head, sticks his tail straight out behind him, and runs as fast as he can to a fence where a big dog lives. I have to drag my other two dogs to keep up with him. It's a tall backyard fence and near the bottom, there is a small peephole about the size of a silver dollar. By the time we reach it, the big dog is usually already barking and even howling as he shoves his nose into the hole. Littles comes along and shoves his own nose right back at the big dog's, barking into the peephole while jumping at the fence and wagging his tail. This same little dog, who freezes up and drops his tail between his legs at the park when a big dog approaches, becomes the aggressor when he's behind a fence. The peephole is his safe view into the big dog's world and he loves to use it for a brief ego boost.
When I got home from our walk the other day, I was reading an online article about a local man who was murdered. In the comments below the article, some woman made an inappropriate, heartless joke about his murder. She didn't know the man. The joke was more about his occupation and she tried to cleverly relate it to why he was killed. I can't imagine she would have said this in the physical presence of the readers, as most people would attack her heartlessness, but behind the safety of the computer, she had no threat. It made me think of my earlier walk with little Mr. Fearless and the protective fence. The internet was this woman's fence, and her peephole was the small box on the website that said: "Post your comment here."
Bullying and serious internet aggression are something altogether different. This incident was more on the level of your average person getting a whim to post something she wouldn't be held accountable for. The woman struck me as someone who just got a quick dose of courage to throw out an outrageous comment. It's like my dog Littles. He's not a bully, but a really nice dog most of the time. He just likes to take that brief opportunity every morning to feel big and strong. I'm not sure what the woman online was trying to feel. Funny? Cool? Or maybe she just wanted to be noticed. I don't know her, so I can't know her heart. Judging her is useless, but using her as an example can be worthwhile. Have I ever been tempted to write something online that I wouldn't say in person? Of course. While her particular joke wouldn't have been my choice, I am certainly capable of voicing opinions that don't need to go out there. If I'm willing to stand behind my comments, and my intentions are pure, then I can speak my mind in good conscience. But if ever my thoughts and motives resemble Littles barking into the peephole, pretending he is something he's not, I will try to recall how pathetic false courage looks, and keep those comments to myself.
There are plenty of positives having this computer peephole to the world. Everyone now has a voice, and the safety behind the computer gives people courage to speak out. That in itself can be a good thing. It starts getting negative when the little Shih Tzus out there lose all sense of their usual decorum for the sake of a quick ego boost, or a laugh, or even just an opportunity to be heard. I think it's a good idea while online to pretend that at any moment, the peephole could open wide up. Face to face with my readers, it would be best to choose words that feel right while looking into their eyes.