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I recently read an article about rats under stress. That’s right, stressed out rats. Scientists, who are forever creating experiments for rats that they then use as an indicator of how humans will behave, decided to see what rats under stress would eat.

“How,” you wonder, “do you stress out a rat?”

Apparently you randomly zap it with an unexpected electrical current. If that doesn’t work you can block its favorite route through the maze. As much as I resent the idea that, of all the animals on earth we are most easily compared to rats, I can relate to both of those experiences. When my maze is blocked or I get randomly zapped by life, the result is that I feel very cranky. I’m just guessing that’s how the rats were feeling as well.

Once the rats were upset and disoriented, the scientists watched to see if they would eat their normal healthy diet of rat chow or if they would be enticed to sip some unhealthy sugar water. Guess what? When things were going well, the rats loved the rat chow and eagerly enjoyed filling their tiny tummies with healthy mouthfuls. But when they started getting cranky, they went for the sugar water every time. This I understand completely.

About a year or two ago when the random zaps in my life had reached maximum frequency and pitch, I began drinking Dr. Pepper. No matter how much anyone suggested I might prefer unsweetened tea or a nice refreshing glass of water, every morning I would drive through the local Chick-fil-A and order more sugar water. When my aunt asked me if I had found a good man to love and cherish I replied, “Yes, the Doctor. Doctor Pepper. And I refuse to be parted from him.” She was thrilled that I had wisely chosen someone from the medical profession. I plan to tell her soon about his true identity.

Another interesting result of the stressed out rat experiment was that these rats began to gain weight around their little bellies. Mind you, they didn’t gain weight everywhere, just mostly around their formerly long and slim rodent tummies. I don’t want you to think I’m actually part rat, but I’ve been noticing exactly the same result in my own physique.

In order to combat the bulging belly syndrome caused by my new love of sugar water, I decided to exercise more vigorously. This meant I could no longer consider sitting in the hot tub at the YMCA as my only form of exercise. In my own defense, I have to say that hot tubs provide some upper body strengthening. After all, you have to hold on pretty tight to the sides of the tub to avoid getting propelled by the jets of water into the lap of a neighboring hot tub resident. Still, I needed middle body strengthening so I decided to start using the treadmills and walking more. I’m finding out that walking isn’t all that much help in battling belly bulge either but my legs are shaping up nicely.

While I’ve been busily trying to walk off my sugar water worries, I’ve been facing some additional challenges. The past few weeks have brought me lots of what corporate America likes to call “opportunities.” Workplaces across the nation have removed the word “problem” from all of their manuals, reading materials, and public relations brochures and replaced it with the word “opportunity” in a desperate attempt to rewire our brains. Some folks believe that if they take the “P” word out of circulation, everyone will be thrilled when a problem, I mean an opportunity, drops in their lap and wets on them. Not I. I was soaked from head to foot and not blind to the fact that every “opportunity” has more than one “P” right in its spelling.

As a result of all this activity, I’ve been waking up early so I can get a jump on reconsidering yesterday’s “opportunities” before my brain is fully functioning. On Monday mornings I wake up while it’s still dark outside and go to the YMCA, which obligingly opens its doors at 5:30am every weekday. They open later on the weekends, but I think that’s because there are fewer “opportunities” to think about in the early morning weekend hours.

This Tuesday morning I was running a little late and showed up at 5:45am. Two of the treadmills were broken and my fellow rats had all beaten me to the remaining machines. What this normally means is that it will be at least ten to fifteen minutes before folks will make room for their fellow sleepwalkers. There is supposedly a thirty minute maximum time to use the equipment when other rats are waiting in line, eager to work out their “opportunities” and take aim at their sugar bellies. Still, you never know with early morning rodents.

At the entrance to this area of the Y, there is a little white board with erasable markers and no eraser. You are supposed to record your name and the time you arrived so that you can claim your indoor walking machine in an orderly fashion. In the doorway next to the board was a man who had arrived right before me.

“Do you know what time it is?” I asked him.

Glancing at his watch, he looked up with a smile and told me. After wiping off the names from the previous day with my finger and wiping the erasable marker smears on my shorts, I put my name and the time on the board. I noticed that his name wasn’t there. I suggested he put his name down with a time before mine. Even in the morning I know when I’m second in line.

As he was writing on the board I began to stretch. I’d rather walk than stretch this early in the morning but with my corporate background and keen mind I’m quick to recognize an “opportunity” and respond accordingly. One leg into the stretch I felt a tap on my shoulder.

“There’s a treadmill open,” the stranger said, pointing to an empty machine.

For someone who had expected to wait at least fifteen minutes I was jubilant. Then I realized that the treadmill should be his. He had arrived before me even if I did fill in my name on the board first. When I suggested the treadmill was rightfully his, he looked at me kindly and said, “No, go ahead. You take it.”

This was highly unusual in the etiquette of exercise equipment. I consider myself an expert at traffic patterns both inside the YMCA and outside, on the busy Atlanta streets. Both patterns work pretty much the same. Everyone fights for his/her own space and you have to make sure no one takes advantage of where you are in line. Out on the streets, if you decide you want to let a car change lanes and get in front of you, you must first pull close to the bumper of the car you are following. This shows the other driver that they cannot do anything without a generous gesture on your part. Most likely, if it’s going to cause a significant delay for you, you wave at them kindly and hope they find a place in the rear. Rarely, if ever, do you let a car in front of you if you think you will have to sit on the road an extra fifteen minutes.

Inside the YMCA, folks vie for machines just as intently as cars compete for lanes on the outside. They rigorously watch to make sure you don’t overstay your welcome (the thirty minute maximum at peak hours) often walking the aisle behind you, checking to see how much time has ticked away on the panel of your machine. I’ve never seen someone offer to give away their place in line when they will have nothing else to do for fifteen whole minutes or possibly longer. This is called selfless behavior and it is rare both on the highways and at the Y.

I was a little shocked that a person I didn’t know was offering me such a kindness at such an hour. It may seem a little thing to you, but that only means you sleep late and don’t worry about whether you’ve had too much sugar water and it’s gathering in a puddle at the center of your body. I knew this was a big deal.

Until that point, I’d spent the last few weeks feeling I had little to give. My tank was perilously close to empty and I was remembering all the little unkind moments others had strewn around me. Not only did I remember them, my mind was refusing to see them as “opportunities.” My heart told me they were really great big problems dressed up as friends, coworkers and family. I wanted to give more, be more understanding of others, be kinder, but all I’d been able to do was to send a few weak prayers up to heaven and ask in a subdued voice if God could please be kind in my absence. Suddenly, my interior engine was revving up. In a single moment, in a random event, from a single act of selflessness, I felt my tank filling, sending the fuel of kindness directly to my spirit. How could that be?

As I walked, I looked around from time to time and saw the stranger standing by the door with the kind look still on his face. Scanning the row of treadmills I thought about the fact that he had given up his chance to work out and finish early for someone he didn’t even know. I’d seen him around but I’d never spoken to him before. As I walked I began to pray. Praying, just like many other things, is hard for me in the morning. I do it, but it provides me several “opportunities,” such as staying awake and thinking of others before I’ve even had caffeine. This morning it was no problem.

From somewhere deep inside I felt the prayers flow out. I prayed for the young boy I’d seen on a heart wrenching news program the week before who had been kidnapped and forced to join an army of thugs, killing members of his own family in order to survive. He had finally escaped and returned to live with his aunt and uncle but his face bore the haunted look of one who has lived through a nightmare. I prayed directly to his spirit and sent him God’s love and held him in my heart.

I thought of a woman I’d read about in the Wall Street Journal. She lives in China and after her husband died, she started a business and sold noodles to finance a seminary where people learned about God. Her seminary had been closed and the members forced to scatter after a few years due to government intervention. She thought maybe she hadn’t had enough faith. But in my mind’s eye I saw her students, forced to scatter across China, sowing their precious seeds of redemption in unexpected places for those who had never tasted the fruit of God’s love. Her name is Sue Xanling but I call her Sue “Can Sing” because she doesn’t even realize how her far her song is reaching. I prayed for her and asked God to open her eyes to his absolute delight in her. There were more prayers, there was more love, and as the tears rolled down my eyes, my feet bounced off the rubber walkway and I was filled to overflowing. All because of a single act of kindness.

After about ten minutes the man finally got his own treadmill. I smiled over at him but he was already watching the morning news, headphones firmly covering his ears, eyes focused on the television screen in front of him. Shortly after that we both finished our walks and I saw him in the gym and said, “Thanks again. I really appreciate what you did.”

He just smiled and nodded. I was disappointed to see that he had on a wedding ring because I was considering claiming him as my own. I guess some things are just not meant to be. Nevertheless, his kind act fueled many kind acts and thoughts of my own over the next several days.

As for my battle with the belly, I can’t say I’ve given up sugar water completely. I’m still dancing with the Doctor (Pepper), occasionally switching to sweet tea. As much as I’d like to think otherwise, I do realize that this doesn’t represent any real progress on my part.

Nevertheless, I think it is important to point something out. On the day that I was the recipient of an act of selfless love, for that is what all random acts of kindness really are, I ate salad for lunch.