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.