THE BLOG
07/09/2013 04:24 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2013

The Most Important Question of All: 'How Can I Help?'

Something amazing happened to me. It was a very small event, but an event that is disappearing from our world, growing extinct. Because of how much it moved and surprised me, I find that I can't stop thinking about it. And so, I write this blog today to honor a practice that is now the exception rather than the rule. It is my hope that by bringing our collective attention to this event, I will re-inspire and re-ignite such actions back into our cultural consciousness.

And now... the event. I was entering my gym and realized that I had my iPhone, but had forgotten my headphones, which meant that I would not be able to listen to music during my run. Not a disaster by any means, but nonetheless, an annoyance. Toying with whether to return home (a mile away) or workout to the thumping (and agitating) soundtrack of the gym floor, I decided to ask the 30-something woman at the desk if there were any headphones that had been left in the lost and found, that (in an ideal world) I might borrow for an hour. She checked but to no avail. And then she did the thing I haven't been able to stop thinking about. She offered to lend me her personal headphones. "I won't need them over the next hour," she said with a friendliness that felt unfamiliar and dare I say, shocking. Within a minute we were heading back to her office so she could fetch her headphones out of her purse. "If I'm not here when you're done, just drop them back on my desk," she called back to me as she headed back to her post up front.

That's it, the whole event. It was that small, and yet it signifies something so big about who we are as a culture and how we are changing. My strong response to her simple kindness was what tipped me off to the importance of this anachronistic event. As we were walking back to her office together, I found myself thanking her profusely, over and over again, as if she were offering me a kidney. I felt such a deep sense of gratitude and surprise as a result of her action, and found myself thinking about whether I should buy her flowers, an iced latte, a new-fangled something... something to honor her out-of-the-ordinary gesture. The fact is, her action, as simple as it was, is not an action that happens often, at least not any more.

What is so amazing about what this woman did is that she took personal responsibility for a situation. She became personally involved. She thought about what she personally could do to solve the problem that was in front of her. She did not need to get one hundred other people involved in her decision. She did not suggest I register with their web site to find out more about what to do in the case of missing headphones. She did not assume a passive (and self-protective) attitude of non-involvement. She did not invoke the corporate-speak or reference the company's policy on missing headphones. She did not defer my problem to someone else, or claim that she did not have the authority to make such decisions. She did not refuse involvement for fear that I would sue her in the event that her headphones got wrapped around my neck and choked me. She did not make me fill out a thousand forms or leave a deposit and a blood sample. And finally, she did not tell me there was nothing she could do. She simply got up out of her chair and went and got her own headphones, without thinking twice.

Oddly, I found myself feeling protective and worried about whether she would get into trouble for doing what she did. I have even chosen not to mention her name here because of my fear that she will be fired for having broken some corporate rule that forbids employees from getting personally involved in a member's life. As crazy as I think it is that she could get into trouble for this simple act, I also realize that it is possible. And further, my own worries demonstrate how deeply the fear of personal involvement has burrowed itself into and infected our cultural consciousness. The beautiful truth is that this woman saw a person who needed something that she could give, and so she moved from the heart without worrying about (or inventing) potential consequences. She did not hold back in order to keep herself safe, but rather put herself out there and perhaps found a different kind of safety in the act of giving.

We are no longer encouraged to be helpful on a personal level, to take action--one person for another, and thus to listen to our heart's natural inclination to be kind. Quite the contrary in fact--we are being trained to see direct involvement with other human beings as potentially dangerous to our own wellbeing. Rather than living organically, seeing ourselves as part of a larger whole, we are being brainwashed to protect our own individual borders, in an effort to stay safe. This woman's simple, direct, and completely natural action reminded me yet again of what we human beings are really made of, and what sits below our modern fear-soaked conditioning. Our basic nature is kindness, helpfulness, and the desire to be of service. Let us not forget this. In the moments where our basic nature peeks through, it is a profound event, and something worth noticing. Instead of always trying to defend ourselves, perhaps we can remember to ask the simplest but most important question of all... How can I help?

And to my friend at the gym, in the hopes that you are reading this, a deep and heartfelt thank you for reminding me of who we really are.

For more by Nancy Colier, click here.