“I’ve been jogging,” he said, panting, “and I forgot to bring my water bottle with me. Could I please have a glass of water?”
“I’m sorry,” said the young woman behind the desk, “but this is a private club. There’s a gas station down the street that might be able to help you.”
The jogger looked at the receptionist, shrugged his shoulders, and left.
My neighbor watched in disbelief. “Excuse me,” she said. “You have a coffee machine with paper cups right next to you. You have a sink with a faucet. You could have poured the man a cup of water.”
The young woman looked back at her and replied, with evident remorse. “You’re right. I wish I had thought of that.”
The response is staggering. Not “I was just following the rules” or “I’m not allowed to leave my desk.” Those would have be the predictable, if disappointing answers.
But how is it possible that the thought of offering a cup of water to an overheated stranger could have been so far off the receptionist’s radar that it would not even enter her mind?
Never mind that the woman behind the counter was white and the jogger was black. That only makes it worse, since the jogger might reasonably have suspected racism and the motive behind the refusal.
But this was not about race. It was about how we have retreated so far into our worlds of isolation that offering a cup of water — the easiest, simplest, cheapest, most fundamental act of kindness possible for one human being to perform for another — has become something “we wish we had thought of.”
Those stories of disconnectedness — of two friends in school passing each other without noticing while they talk to each other on the phone, of a child calling her parents in the living room from her bedroom, of a husband and wife texting one another from opposite sides of the couch — have gone from being amusing anecdotes to being darkly disturbing. We’re well on our way to forgetting that other people are real. Which means we’re forgetting what it is to be human.
Like anything else, kindness takes practice. It has become popular to talk about doing random acts of kindness, and that’s wonderful. But it might benefit us more if we did disciplined acts of kindness, to develop the habit of kindness so that we don’t have to think about it.
It really isn’t so hard to drop a coin in a jar for charity every morning, to give a smile and a greeting to the strangers we pass on the sidewalk or to our co-workers in the office, to hold the door open for another as we go through the door ourselves, to offer help to someone whose hands are full, to call a colleague who doesn’t show up at work to ask if everything is okay.
With a little practice, we won’t have to remember to act kind because we will have become kind.