Reflecting the Good Samaritan along life’s way

The people who sold us the old farmhouse left us a black kerosene-burning kitchen stove, but they took with them the fifty-five-gallon oil drum and the stand on which it stood. So we telephoned Austin Corbett, the oil dealer, ordering both drum and kerosene.

It was early spring, a bright, brittle New England day, and my wife was there alone when Austin’s man drove down the lane. She showed him where he should put the barrel in the barn and went back inside the house. Soon she heard his knock.

“Does your husband have a handsaw?” he asked. “And may I cut up those old two-by-fours in the corner of the barn?”

Priscilla quickly said yes to both his questions. It would have been so simple for Austin’s man to have delivered what we had ordered—a barrel full of kerosene—and then gone on his way. But if he had, he would have left me with a problem when I came home from work. I could not have drained the barrel into the portable tank that hung behind the kitchen stove unless the drum lay horizontal on a stand. And there was no stand.

Swiftly the delivery man cut the old gray two-by-fours into proper lengths, spiked them together with rusty nails he had pulled screeching from the weathered wood, and toenailed the stand against the barn wall. Then he lifted the light and empty oil drum atop it and filled it up for us.

This was almost twenty years ago, but we have never forgotten this very helpful act. I don’t know how many thousands of winter oil furnace dollars we’ve spent with Austin’s company since then, or how many customers we’ve sent his way. I do know I wouldn’t think of dealing with any other company. For Austin’s man could have done so many other things—he could have filled the barrel and left it there for me to discover how to empty it (with siphon, with pump, with curses, certainly), or how to get all 400 pounds of it up on a stand (with plank or hoist, strain or sprain). Or he could have said, “You need a stand, Missus. Call me when you get one.” But he had not. He had helped us, and we are forever grateful.

What he did, and how he did it, is basic to a successful, happy, useful life. He had simply asked himself how he could help us, and then had gone ahead—without intrusion, without fanfare, without expecting a reward.

Somehow Austin always manages to hire men—and he does not know how he does it—who are exceptionally helpful. Not talking-helpful, or asking-helpful, but thinking-helpful and doing-helpful. Here in this New England village where I live, the Bells’ house on Pike Hill Road burned out some time ago. They saved six cows, some furniture, but not much more. They needed just about everything.

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A neighbor drove up to smell and see the smoking cellar-hole and kick at the scorched stone of the fire-crumbled granite. He clucked his tongue and shook his head, then told old Mr. Bell, “If there’s anything I can do, just let me know.” And then he drove away, leaving only ritual words behind.

But one of Austin’s men went up there too. He didn’t ask what he could do. He looked and saw that everything was there to do. In a few hours he was back with a stake-body truck loaded with hay. Then other men and women—the do-ers, not the offerers, not the talkers—the philosophical kin to Austin’s men—came quietly up the hill with help. They brought beds and mattresses and sacks of potatoes and cooking utensils and clothes.

Why do some men offer words they never mean, and others quietly produce the help so badly needed? Once when I asked this question of a lawyer friend—one of the most truly helpful men I know—he simply snorted, “Aw, why are some people good-natured? It’s natural.”

Perhaps. But certainly the helpful man is less self-centered, much less greedy.

And perhaps he knows instinctively that genuine help is a very private, personal thing, and the phrase “How can I help?” is not a saying-phrase; it’s a thinking-phrase. You don’t say it; you think it. You ask it only of yourself. The man who asked Mr. Bell what he could do did not really want to help. His intention was to get on record as offering help. He was taking care of his conscience instead of Mr. Bell.

Yet there are those to whom helping is as natural—and perhaps as necessary—as breathing. I remember a paratroop major who shared a ward with me during the latter part of World War II. His right shoulder had been shot out by mortar fire, and his upper body was sheathed in a bulky plaster cast. But he could walk, while many of us among the 3,000 wounded in that hospital could not, and his left arm was free.

Over the months I watched him teach himself to write left-handed, and then one day he began to wander through the wards, clutching Army forms in duplicate and triplicate. In civilian life he had been an insurance salesman, and now he went from bed to bed, advising us about our National Service Life insurance, helping us apply for waiver of premium, converting our term insurance to other plans, changing beneficiaries. Some suggestions he made to me have not only saved me money over the years but also added invaluable comfort and security for my family. I am filled with gratitude for what he did for me, but I still wonder why he did it.

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Perhaps boredom was the reason, for he was hospitalized for more than two years. Perhaps he was merely anticipating his discharge and practicing his trade; perhaps he hoped that some of us would become his clients. I think none of these is true, however. I suspect that, like Austin’s men, he simply had to help. For helpfulness is brother to usefulness, and I think this wounded major sensed more than most of us the meaning of Goethe’s comment that “a useless life is an early death.”

There have always been those selfish and insensitive souls who consider helping as quid pro quo—something, or some act, paid out hopefully so that at some later time it could be paid back swollen with profit. Something for something. But that’s not help; that’s dickering. A man who hopes for reward in return for his help—either now or in some later time or place—is not really helping; he’s speculating. True help is motiveless, uncontaminated; the best kind often is anonymous. It is never intruding, never unwelcome, and rarely requested. Although frequently it seems to reap rewards, these are by-products—not the purpose—of the helpful acts.

A few years ago the office manager for a large toy manufacturer, a man of forty who had worked his way through most of his company’s divisions in his twenty years of service, was suddenly informed of a company reorganization.

“It’s not that we don’t value you, Dick,” the president told him in gentle embarrassment. “But the board decided that we need a man from outside. He’ll be a vice-president. You’ll report to him.” He paused. “You know how it is.”

“No,” Dick blurted. “I don’t know how it is.” And he left the office angrily, a bypassed executive instinctively seeking ways to fight for survival.

With his knowledge Dick was well-equipped to sabotage the new vice-president, or at least to let him blunder into errors that Dick could swiftly see but never would correct in time. He couldn’t bring himself to sabotage, but he gave only the minimum. He was never curt, but he was never voluble. He never volunteered the knowledge and shortcuts and guidance and advice the new man looked to him to provide.

Then one day in the company coffee shop he sat next to an old machinist he’d known for years. “Well, Dick,” the older man asked, “earnin’ your pay?” It was a ritual greeting with the machinist, as other men say, “Fine day,” even when it is raining. The ritual answer was, “Well, not today,” and Dick said it, realizing that for the first time in his life he was answering truthfully.

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And he knew then that for him to be happy—to think well of himself—he had to produce, to be useful. Thoughtfully he asked himself, “How can I help?” and he knew a multitude of answers. Because he knew the personalities of every department head in the plant, he could guide his boss away from conflict, and he did. He briefed his boss on how the company’s key men would react to innovation; and he wrote memos suggesting changes which he once had hoped to introduce himself. And he felt better; he was alive again.

A year later the new vice-president was offered an executive position with a larger company in the Mid-west. He did not want the job himself and recommended his assistant. Dick accepted, nearly doubling his salary.

Thus Dick’s success would seem to be a by-product of his helpfulness. Yet it might also be said that those qualities that make us helpful humans are also those needed for success.

A vice-president of one of the nation’s largest advertising agencies recently told me, “The magic thing you look for in the young man you’re hiring is his willingness to assume more responsibility than his job calls for. This is what makes people succeed.”

Such a man is really asking himself, “How can I help?” This is the man who becomes known first as the helpful man, then as the indispensable man, and later as the man who creates his own job. Ability is necessary for success, of course; but the special ingredient is willingness to perform beyond the merely acceptable requirements of the job—it is the desire to help.

Among other things, true help involves compassion, devotion, caring, and a willingness to give of self.

We can help others by sensing what they need, then asking ourselves the quiet question, “How can I help?” Sometimes the answer is simply to listen, or to be understanding. Sometimes a friend needs stimulation, and then pertinent questioning can be helpful. This, of course, is what a skillful teacher often does, and a teacher’s task is constantly involved with helping.

One of the most helpful acts I’ve ever seen happened in the lobby of our post office recently. A retired farmer pulled an envelope from his post office box and ripped it open. We heard his gasp as he read the letter. His news distressed him so that he seemed about to burst into tears. Then one of the mail clerks leaned out of his window and, in a voice loud enough to fill the lobby, distracted the old man with a stream of foolish chatter long enough for him to regain his self-control. Then he looked somberly at the clerk, said very precisely, “Thank you very much,” and left with dignity—to everyone’s relief. Because of the clerk’s timely distraction, the old man had been spared a painful public emotional breakdown.

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It takes great strength and common sense to select the proper help sometimes. Last winter on the ski slope I watched a young mother teach her crippled daughter how to ski. The girl, a laughing, beautiful child of thirteen, fell frequently; her mother stood beside her smiling as she watched her child but did not help her as she struggled to her feet. It was difficult for both of them—perhaps much harder on the mother, and it was hard on me just to watch—but it was right. Both knew that for this child, falling down was growing up; they knew that physical help would not have strengthened the muscles that were weak: it would have made the child dependent. The easy way would have been to stay at home, but that would have been wrong; it would have been no help at all.

Parents often are tempted to be too helpful—and therefore un helpful, if not harmful—to their children because it is so much easier. Yet many parents do know how to help, despite the time and effort it requires.

My neighbor’s young son has been promised a 22 rifle. It would be easy for my neighbor to write a check for the rifle, but instead he and his son have agreed to share the cost. To earn his half, young Pete is selling bundles of white birch logs to summer residents. But Pete’s father drives Pete to the family woodlot to cut the trees; he handles the chainsaw; and he drives Pete to deliver the bundles. “It’s great,” Pete’s Dad told me recently, “but it’s sure busy.”

In the business world men often ask themselves how they can get ahead. If, instead, they asked themselves, “How can I help?” more would travel farther. Recently a highly successful lawyer told me, “It’s not always the man who graduates at the top of his class who becomes the most successful attorney. It’s the man who willingly spends a little extra time with his clients—even though he knows he’ll get no extra fee for it. He’s the man who is just naturally helpful.”

How can we learn to be more helpful? Like Austin’s helpful oilman we can ask ourselves the silent question and look about us to see what can be done. Then we should ask ourselves whether what we want to do is the right, honest, truthful way to help, or merely an expedient. Is it merely something that will make us feel good for “helping,” or is it a truly useful act?

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“How can I help?” can be a silent guideline to us all—in our relationships with family and friends, in business, in civic enterprise. For everyone at some time needs some help, and help given is not expendable. It is like love; the more we give, the more we have. And the more we have, and give, the more we shall reflect the Good Samaritan in day-to-day relationships with our neighbors along life’s way.

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