My memory has never been my strongest asset, but I distinctly recall having a moment very similar to what I am about to describe. The following is in honor of Father’s Day. It took place many years ago, and thus includes quite a bit of speculation and embellishment, though the basic spirit of the lesson and event remain in tact.
“You’re borrowing the jack,” my father said.
I don’t remember what we were talking about exactly, but I feel like we were sitting on the floor. “What are you talking about?” I asked. Whatever he was talking about, I would receive it with contempt because my father often used stories, parables, and analogies that I thought were stupid, cheesy, or irrelevant.
“You’ve decided that you know how it’s going to turn out without even trying. You’re borrowing the jack. Don’t do that.”
I knew he was going to tell me a story to explain his phrase “borrowing the jack,” but I didn’t want to ask for the story. Not that this was a common standoff between us, but the way I remember it, this particular instance involved me not wanting to ask for the story that I knew was coming. I didn’t realize it then, but it would be one of the best teaching moments I would remember with my father for the rest of my life. It certainly wasn’t the most important lesson he taught me, or even the most powerful, but the story and the moment in which he taught it to me will be with me forever.
Although he told me the story one way, I remember it as I envisioned it in my head as he spoke. Now, with a little detail added in, I will tell you what I saw in my mind.
There was a man, Phil, and his wife, Susan. Phil was an unemployed auto mechanic who was having a very bad day. While out looking for work the day before, he had picked up a nail in his tire, and he discovered the flat tire on the way to do more job hunting in the morning. Angry and frustrated he went back inside, threw his jacket down on the couch, and collapsed in a huff.
“What’s the matter, hon?” his wife asked.
“Oh Susan, it’s the car. We’ve got a flat. I need to change the tire, but we sold our only jack to buy groceries just last week.”
“Well,” offered Susan, “I was out walking yesterday while you were looking for a job, and I saw one of our neighbors at the top of the hill changing his oil. His car was definitely jacked up. I’ll bet you could borrow his jack.”
Phil thought for a moment. “I don’t know him. I don’t think he’d loan his jack to just any stranger.”
“You won’t know until you ask,” his wife reminded him. And with a smile she handed him his jacket and hurried him out the door. “We need you to go find a job. No time to waste. I love you.”
Phil stood outside his house looking up the hill at his neighbor’s house. The house sat at the end of a long driveway that climbed several hundred feet up. He thought about going back inside, but when he imagined his wife’s disappointment he forced himself to begin the climb to his neighbor’s front door.
As he went he thought about how it would go when he knocked on the door. “What if I had a jack still, and a stranger knocked on my door asking to borrow it?” he asked himself. Being that he needed nothing more than he needed that jack right now, except, perhaps, a job, he couldn’t see himself being very willing to part with it. What if the stranger damaged or lost the jack? Some jacks are very expensive, and if the neighbor were as poor as he was he surely wouldn’t want to worry about trying to replace something as essential as a jack.
He was about a quarter of the way up the hill now, and he stopped. “I should just go back home. If he’s as poor as I am he won’t want to worry about replacing the jack. I shouldn’t bother.” But again he was reminded of his wife’s encouragement and decided to keep going.
A minute later he was thinking again about how it might go when he asked. “Perhaps he will see me as some kind of freeloader. I didn’t even bring anything to offer him in return for such a favor.” He imagined his neighbor forever avoiding him and thinking less of him for being so straightforward as to borrow a jack without offering anything in return. “Of course, I have nothing to offer him. There is no use in asking for a favor without having anything to offer in return.” And so he stopped and turned around. But before taking a step toward his house he imagined his wife’s righteous anger at him for failing to even ask. So, he turned back to face up the hill and took another step toward his neighbor’s home.
He managed to make it all the way to the doorstep. He raised his hand to the door, and just before knocking he asked himself, “What if I’m rudely interrupting him?” The neighbor might be very intolerant of interruptions. It is never a good idea to ask someone for something when you’ve angered them. “I haven’t got anything to offer him in return, he probably values his jack as much as I would and would never lend it to a total stranger, and he’s probably busy anyway.” He pulled his hand back and looked over at his shoulder at his own home. Sure, his wife might be disappointed, but she’d be disappointed anyway if the neighbor refused to loan him the jack. And so, without knocking he turned and went back home.
“Not only did the man make several potentially false assumptions about his neighbor, he never even gave the neighbor the chance to say yes or no. This man’s way of borrowing the jack was such that he could never succeed since he didn’t even try,” concluded my father. And the lesson, though lost on me at the time, stuck forever.
In preparation for writing this I did a little poking around and found two other similar stories. Apparently this is either the basis for a joke, or based on a joke that can be read here. Additionally, it also appears as a similar yet distinct lesson here.
I owe my father a lifetime worth of thanks for all that he has taught me. Though I cannot promise that I haven’t borrowed the jack once or twice, I have made a habit of reminding myself as often as possible that you can never succeed if you don’t try. I love you, Dad, and all the wisdom you shared and continue to share with me.