Monday, August 23, 2010

'This American Life' Wrecked My Life

I listen to This American Life podcast every week. I purposefully do not partake of mass media news. I don't have a television, I don't listen to the radio, and I might skim the BBC world headlines. I choose 'This American Life'.
There are some who believe that it is important to be informed about the events unfolding around us. I agree and yet hearing story after story about sea turtles eating crude oil in the Gulf, or millions displaced by floods in Pakistan solicits a physical and emotional response in me that is too strong, I have to turn away. Just as I turn, I can't stand not knowing what is going to happen, and I have to look back to make sure the whole world hasn't slid into the abyss.

Having said that, I'm devoted to this weekly radio program. I'll admit not every episode is noteworthy, sometimes it is, and sometimes it wrecks me. They do occasionally have current, newsworthy episodes, but mostly the stories are, as the title suggests, about people. I can't fathom global politics, but I can contemplate my neighbor.
At the beginning of the summer I listened to this episode:



Originally aired 05.07.2010
We bring you stories of bridges from three different countries, including one in China that's famous for its massive size and its high suicide rate. One takes it upon himself to patrol the bridge, looking for jumpers. You can read entries from the watchman's blog here. This and other stories where we stop before getting to the other side.

There is a four mile long bridge in Naan-jing China, famous for how many people jump off to commit suicide. In 2003, a man named Chen Sah began spending all of his weekends on the bridge, trying to single handedly stop the jumpers. Reporter Mike Paterniti tells his story of meeting Mr. Chen.
You can read some of Mr. Chen's blog posts about the bridge here. A story Paterniti wrote about Mr. Chen appears in GQ Magazine. (15 minutes)

The reporter follows a man around as he patrols and pulls desperate people off of the bridge before they kill themselves. This isn't the kind of story I should have listened to, but I couldn't stop listening. The most interesting part of the story was how the man rescuing people actually felt after he pulled someone down. He was a bit angry and bitter, it was a job he felt compelled to do, but didn't enjoy. One would think he would be more calm and centered. This story set a stone down somewhere inside of me.

A few weeks after hearing this story, we were driving in our VW Vanagon, home from a restful camping trip. Coming from the coast, into the Central Valley of California, it was 104 degrees, up from the foggy 50 that we left in the morning. We were all miserable in the old, un-air conditioned bus. We debated. Only 40 minutes from home, we had to stop to get cooler. Do we muscle it out, and drive home, or do we stop for a few minutes to cool off. What happened next made that choice matter.

Feeling a bit more refreshed, we headed home over a bridge, that divides two valley towns by a river. The bridge is high, over a river, industrial space, and a race track ( for all the set up, you can guess what is going to happen next). At the top of the bridge, sitting on the outside of the railing, was a woman, getting her courage to jump.

Without thinking, I told my husband to pull over at the end of the bridge, grabbed my phone and hopped out of the moving van. I started quickly back up the bridge, and called 911. I had a bit of a walk to contemplate what I thought I was doing, and talk to the dispatcher, on the way to the woman.

My mind was racing: What am I doing? When I see her, I'll pull her down, like the man in the story does, but if she is standing, I won't, because I don't want to go down with her. What am I going to say to her? If she does jump, then I'm going to have to remember it has nothing to do with me, but if she gets down, maybe I had something to do with it. Do I really think I can recover from seeing this woman take her life? What will I say?

Before I saw her, I was looking over the railing to the grassy racetrack below for her body. I could hear sirens for her, then see her silhouette come into view, not sitting, but now standing on the railing taking deep gulps of air (not going to pull her down). I recognized the deep breathing as I have jumped into the river from a tall rock, and needed those same breaths to gain courage. As I got close enough to see her, the police were arriving from both sides of the baking bridge. I was ahead of them walking fast, and she said to me, "Come any closer, and I'll jump". I stopped. I put my arms in the air, in surrender, but the police pushed by me, ignoring her command.

Then, for what seemed a day, or as if there was no such thing as time, there was a stand-off. The police shouted at her, not with anger, but commanding force. I stood, taking up space on the bridge, imagining I was there for some reason. She was back-lit by the setting sun, and as thin as the light post she used for balance on the railing. As the shouting continued, I could not look at her one more second. I would look away, but then, not knowing if she had jumped, have to look back to her ashen face. It was like a cruel tennis match.

At this point I was 90% sure she was going to jump. The officers crept towards her, yelling at her to get down, but she wouldn't. All the while, I'm looking towards her, and then away for a moment, and then back again. I was trying to stop my hands from shaking, and to be there. The tension inside me was too much. I think it was too much for the lady on the bridge as well. The officers, without asking her if she was a mother, asked her to think of her children.

She got down.

It turns out those police officers do that talk-down quite a bit on the 10th St. bridge in Yuba City. It was clever to assume she was a mother. It would be the reason I would get down (or never get up there in the first place, no worries!).

I've had a lot of time now to think about that late afternoon. I know it was about that woman getting down off the railing, but I was there too. So for some reason it was about me as well. I can't take any credit because she got down. I never spoke to her. That day I found myself in a similar situation I am faced with the news.  I want to see what happens, but I often have to look away.  It is too graphic.

What I can do is fight the bitterness and anger that comes with darkness and current events. I don't want to be like the man in China miserably pulling folks off the bridge. Tragedy isn't something that happens globally on the CBS Evening News. It isn't something I can choose to look away from, and yet if I stare it in the face, like the man in China, I'm bitter and angry.

I could not have driven by that woman on the bridge. There are 6 billion of us here and any tragedy is personal.

In my attempt to hide from the 'real' world, by listening to non-newsworthy personal stories on a weekend public radio program, I found a kernel of courage on the 10th St. bridge. I found that I can look for as long as I can, and then I can take a break, and I don't get to ask why.


  1. Steven Bonaker9:17 PM

    Cousin, this is why you are God's child; beautiful, introspective, and extrovertive. I am so proud of the woman you've become, are, and will continue to be.

  2. Wondering how to be empathetic without being pathetic myself. Consider reading G.K. Chesterton's "Orthodoxy." He makes some interesting comments about suicide and the Christian worldview.

  3. I have made an effort to move away from 'empathy' and towards 'compassion'. Clearly I am compassionate, and taken to extreme, empathetic. The woman who was going to kill herself, was going to kill herself, despite how badly I felt for her. I think being able to feel like she felt for a moment, and then giving that feeling back to her, gave me the ability to walk away, hopeful that she is going to be taken care of. It wasn't my stuff, but hers.
    I like how you said, 'empathetic rather than pathetic', and hopefully I can be more than either of those, compassionate.