“No” is one of the first words we learn as children, and unfortunately as we go through life it remains popular. For a person who works to overcome a challenge to become active and participate in the outdoors, oftentimes you have “no” in your head already, and the voice speaking it doesn’t need reinforcement – and it gets it. Instead, its your desire to rise above that needs the hand. And feeding that desire is often a matter of a small kindness.

For example, when I was first losing weight back in 2006, I was a gym rat. I was 400 pounds and unable to walk a city block without having to stop and rest. Even three months into working out I looked horrible, a round-bellied mass of muscle imbalances atop crooked legs. On the floor of the gym and in the locker room I didn’t look like I belonged, and like many super obese people I struggled with self-worth and learned helplessness. ย And keeping enthused, despite the pounds falling off me, was difficult at times. ย One of the other lifters must have picked up on my feelings, as he not only befriended me, he would slip me confidence when I needed it. As I worked myself into a soggy mess on a stationary bike or elliptical machine, he would pass behind me at say “Go Neil go.” Corny, yes, and perhaps a throwaway phrase, but by the end of the year I was down 125 pounds. “Go Neil go” cost the speaker nothing, but paid off big time for me.

But the small gesture I described above doesn’t need to be delivered in person. Sometimes its a person you’ve never met who winds up encouraging you. As when I first began to learn to ride a bike.

I’d never learned to ride as a child, and so I bought myself a bike and at age 40 began to learn to ride. Information on teaching an adult beginner wasn’t common on the Internet at that time, and so I muddled through the basics of balancing and pedaling. (Now, of course, there’s a guide to teach yourself.) My early rides were slow, laborious, and physically challenging. And unfortunately cycling is full of strong opinions, some of which were shared with me with the furious passion that some people feel on knowing someone is wrong on the Internet. My own favorite bit of wisdom came from the correspondent who insisted I shouldn’t ride outside without having put in a couple of hundred miles riding on a stationary trainer. It seems I just wasn’t strong enough, and for my own sake, as well as that of the sport of cycling, I should give up riding outside. I tried to ignore such voices but they fed my thinking at times.

Fortunately, that voice wasn’t the only one speaking. On a website that’s long gone, I struck up a correspondence with an experienced rider. He seemed interested in my progress, and we exchanged some private messages, but I didn’t learn just how much he supported my struggle to ride until he offered to send me some old cycling magazines he had. I thought sending me the magazines was very kind, but I didn’t realize just how kind until the package arrived at my door.

I looked at the shipping label. The package was addressed to “Neil Brennen, cyclist.”

Again, it cost the sender nothing but a couple of pen strokes, but it meant a lot to me to see my name and the description I was seeking. I can’t say I would have given up cycling without “cyclist” after my name, but seeing the word there was reinforcement when I needed it. I not only learned to ride, but I completed a century and logged 3000 miles that year.

And more importantly, having been the recipient of small kindnesses and gestures, I’ve given them out as well. I’ve sent notes of encouragement, gifts, invitations to rides and hikes, to people I’ve met online who seemed like they could use a boost. It costs me little, but it helps the recipient. So from reading a package I not only learned I was a cyclist, I learned to be a better man.

I’m still friends with the cyclist who called me a cyclist on a mailing label, although we’ve switched to Facebook and email for our conversations. I have yet to meet him, and aside from exchanging voice mail messages seven years ago we’ve never spoken. Recently my friend had something he wanted to send me, and a week ago I found a package at my door.

Old habits die hard.