Go to a gym, no matter how crowded, and you'll realize no one talks to each other.
Between earbuds and screen peeks between sets, every person is basically an island. Interactions that do take place are nonverbal. Hand gestures and raised eyebrows that ask, "Are you using (that)?"
So when I noticed a guy struggling to raise two 70-pound dumbbells over his head, I hesitated. Should I step in?
Or be like everyone else and stay on my island?
The weight wasn't too heavy for him. Not really. With seated dumbbell presses, once you get the dumbbells up to your shoulders, the most difficult part of the movement is the first few inches. Get them over your head once and you can usually do at least four to six more reps.
He strained and swayed for a few seconds, then dropped the dumbbells back down on top of his thighs. He shook his head, clearly frustrated. Then he lifted the dumbbells back to his shoulders, strained and swayed... and I stepped behind him, put my hands under his elbows, and helped him raise the weights over his head.
I caught his eyes in the mirror, nodded, and moved away. He didn't need me anymore.
After he finished his set he walked over and took out one earbud. "Thanks," he said.
"Just thought I'd help," I said. "I sometimes wish someone would help me when I'm trying to go heavier. I'm really weak at the beginning of that first rep."
"Well," he said, "like I said, appreciate the gesture."
He turned, then turned back. "But I didn't need your help."
Sunday night, Brad Pitt ended his Best Supporting Actor Award acceptance speech at the Golden Globes by saying:
"If you see a chance to be kind to someone tomorrow, take it."
But being kind isn't always easy, even though we want people to be kind.
At least to us.
As Barbara Taylor and Adam Phillips write in On Kindness:
We usually know what the kind thing to do is -- and kindness when it is done to us, and register its absence when it is not...
We are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us. There is nothing we feel more consistently deprived of than kindness; the unkindness of others has become our contemporary complaint.
Kindness consistently preoccupies us, and yet most of us are unable to live a life guided by it.
Yet living a life guided by kindness isn't always easy. Do something nice, just because you can, and many will assume you want something.
When I decided to compliment every person I met for an entire day (which turned out to be a really long day), many people appeared to wait for the other shoe to drop.
A compliment is often a prelude: To a request, to a sales pitch, to something. Many seemed surprised that a compliment was just a compliment, and nothing more.
The same is true for kindness. Do something nice, just because you can, and people tend to wait for the other shoe to drop.
But what if there is no other shoe?
Some will still doubt your intentions. Some, like the guy at the gym, will see receiving an act of kindness as an admission of vulnerability, weakness, or need.
But many will recognize and appreciate that moment of connection, the sense that even though each of us is an island, for brief moments we can also form a part of an island chain.
Doing something kind, just because you can, says, "I see you." Everyone likes to be noticed.
Doing something kind, just because you can, says, "You're not alone." No one likes to feel alone.
Doing something kind, just because you can, brightens another person's day, if only for a moment.
And brightens yours, too.
Even if it's not always appreciated, that's reason enough.
Because, as with most things, wanting others to be kind to us... starts with us being kind to others.