Here in Florida, the holiday season is full upon us with the advent of American Thanksgiving. In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, I have set up my Wonderful Life Tree of Help once again, something I have been doing during every Christmas season since childhood.
My helping tree is festooned with ornaments celebrating the many ways I have helped people throughout my life. With all the modesty you have come to expect from me, I must tell you it is a magnificent display, and I am still adding to it.
Each ornament speaks to a person or group of folks whom I have helped along their way. Some asked for my assistance, others were the unknowing beneficiaries of my kindness, and although things did not always pan out as intended, I’m pretty sure every one of them would have been appreciative of my good intentions.
Mind you, the ornaments are the reason I think that, as no one has ever actually bothered to thank me directly.
That aside, I have a beautiful ornament commemorating the first time I realized I had this compelling need to be of assistance to others. In grade seven or eight, I saw two kids beating up another kid in the schoolyard, so I immediately stepped in to help. The kid never had a chance against the three of us.
Another ornament celebrates the time I helped one of my friends who was really upset because, rather than kissing him during spin-the-bottle games, the girls always preferred to give him the nickel penalty and go on to the next boy. I showed him how to open a bank account.
I have ornaments from my teenage years, too. Once, when I was re-stocking shelves in a supermarket, a woman asked me which brand of toilet-tissue was best. I was very helpful and told her on the whole, they’re all pretty good.
On another occasion, I was dragooned into helping my boss at a formal reception for his important suppliers. My job was to stand at the entrance to the ballroom, like a doorman, and call the guests’ names as they arrived in all their finery. They were quite astonished at the names I called them, and I awarded myself a beautiful ornament celebrating that occasion. Lost my job, though.
Later, as a young married man, I was hiking a wilderness trail with my first wife when we saw a huge grizzly ahead of us in the path. Although I knew I couldn’t outrun an angry bear, I was sure I could outrun my wife, so I told her I was going for help. She’s not with me anymore, but there’s a lovely ornament on my helping tree to remember her by.
Around that same period, I offered two pieces of advice to a friend having marital troubles of his own. With typical male smugness, I advised that the secret to a happy marriage was, first, to always let his wife think she was having her own way. The second bit, I told him, was even more important—always let her have her own way.
Eventually, I became a father, and that’s when my propensity to help others really bloomed. There’s a particularly lovely ornament on my tree marking the time I counselled a friend debating if he wanted to have children. I reminded him of how he used to wonder why his parents were always in a bad mood.
I also have an ornament on my tree in honour of the time I told a particularly harried father that it’s not enough to put a loving note in his kids’ lunchboxes—he has to put food in there, too.
Lest you think I neglected my own parental responsibilities, let me assure you that I helped myself become a better parent by always finding out in advance what my daughters wanted to do, then advising them to do that exact same thing. I earned so many ornaments for my tree by doing that simple thing.
All in all, my helping tree is a splendid sight, festooned with so many brilliant ornaments. My favourite might be the one celebrating all the lost strangers who have asked me for directions over the years, directions I made up on the spot. I wonder where they ever ended up?
Or perhaps it’s the ornament marking the time I helped my second wife with typing capital letters when she had her broken arm in a sling—I called it shift work.
Even now, at my advanced age, I find I’m still trying to help people, and I’m forever creating new ornaments to adorn my helping tree. For example, I’ve lately been counselling aspiring writers who get frustrated when they run into blocks by telling them they’re not good enough to get mad.
More recently, I explained to a younger friend despairing about his lack of success in life that the two things holding him back are an abundance of witlessness and a justified dearth of confidence. I’m not sure that cheered him, but I gave myself props for trying—and another ornament.
And just this morning, I earned my latest ornament by listening to a friend ramble on about his crackpot political leanings, then telling him I’d agree with him except that would make both of us wrong.
I confess it has become more difficult as I’ve gotten older to be of assistance to others. I’m finding that most folks tend to look away when I approach, or even scurry away in unseemly haste. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it seems I now bring happiness and support to people, not wherever I go, but whenever I go.
Nevertheless, I persist in my relentless efforts to help whomever I can. And to that end, may I suggest to you, dear reader, that if you find my advice tiresome and irrelevant, just stop reading!
No, no, wait…I mean…