Yesterday evening I spent about half an hour watching a woman struggling with life and death.
I was working an evening shift, and was summoned to the rooftop patio of our (residential) building. From there, one of my co-workers said, “Jumper,” and pointed up to the Vancouver Harbour Centre (pictured here: http://www.vancouverlookout.com/lookout-photos/tower/11_hi.jpg). Looking up, I saw a woman standing on a ledge on the outside of the building, about 43 floors from the ground (130 metres/430 feet). Apparently she had broken one of the windows on the viewing floor and climbed outside before anybody had time to react (here is a picture of the viewing floor: http://www.vancouverlookout.com/lookout-photos/high/272.JPG; and here is the view facing towards my work — the view that the woman would have had: http://www.vancouverlookout.com/lookout-photos/high/269.JPG).
It was an extremely odd experience to just stand there and watch this woman in the sky. Part way through, one of the residents in the building showed up with a camera with a telephoto lens, and we watched the woman’s movement in detail. She would sit on the broken window sill, then she would stand for long periods of time, facing out, with her arms outstretched as if she were preparing to fly… or being nailed to a cross. At other times, she would grab onto the edge with one hand and lean out looking down towards the ground.
It’s strange what goes through your mind when you witness this sort of thing. How can I think, “Lord, have mercy, save that woman’s life!” at the same time as “Wow, I’m going to be able to say I was there when that woman jumps!”? Shame on me.
The funny thing was, I think that everybody watching from my work was feeling the same thing — everyone was expressing dismay or horror, but it felt as though everybody was secretly hoping that the woman would jump. This, I think, is the voyeurism I referred to in my last post. It’s the sort of thing we end up feeling when things like the nightly news are presented as a tantalizing form of entertainment (“Ooooo! Did you see those pictures from Myanmar?” “Aaaaah! Did you see that video from China’s earthquake zone?”).
I think that these (voyeuristic) feelings are also an expression of the emptiness, or meaninglessness, we feel when we think about our own lives. We want to be part of something bigger, we want to be part of some event, that will take us beyond the confines of our day-to-day living. That’s why we ask each other: “Where were you when you first heard about 9/11?” and are able to provide answers to that question. Our answers affirms that we, in our own ways, were a part of that event. I think we find some sort of meaning or significance in that. Consequently, it’s almost as if we thrive on disaster. We claim to be horrified when we hear of things like cyclones, earthquakes, jumpers, school shootings, but I can’t help but wonder if we’re really thinking, “Ooooo! Let me see that!” or “Aaaah! I wish I was there to see that!”
That’s why we find disasters that aren’t caught on camera to be so much more boring. And that’s why we want to see the footage of kids jumping from school windows, of towers falling to the ground, of dead bodies littering beaches, and of towns reduced to rubble. Such footage provides us both with entertainment and with a sense of significance, a sense of being a part of something larger-than-life. Welcome to the Society of the Spectacle!
I was thinking all these things last night, as I watched that woman stand on the ledge. She stood there for a long time. The sky got dark. It got cold. It was raining intermittently. And still she stood there.
I spent a lot of that time praying for her (perhaps in an effort to do penance for the part of me that actually wanted to see her jump?). But the longer she stood there, and the longer I prayed, the more other questions began to run through my mind. I wondered: what is the point of praying these prayers? After all, aren’t there thousands of people around the world raising equally desparate prayers on a daily basis, and finding that those prayers go unanswered? Why would God intervene to save this woman, when God regularly chooses not to intervene in so many other equally horrible, or even more horrible, situations? Furthermore, people everywhere are suffering and dying and that never seems to bother any of us too much. Why were we suddenly so keen to see this woman live? How can we suddenly claim to care for the fate of this stranger, when mostly we live our lives with total disregard of the death and suffering that is all around us? Isn’t that a bit hypocritical? Isn’t it a bit theatrical? Are we just playing the part that we think we are required to play in this event?
No, I replied to myself, I don’t think that it is quite as bad as all that. Rather than being a sign of hypocrisy, it is possible that nearness to death (briefly?) awakens us to the significance of life, and of every life. So we pray our prayers, even in light of God’s silence and absence, because we are committed to life, and because we have seen those rare and wondrous moments when new life has overcome death. Then, hopefully, we walk away from such nearness to death with a renewed commitment to life, and to sharing life with others. This, I think, is the true litmus test as to whether or not such an event is genuinely encountered or if it simply experienced as a form of entertainment, and an exciting story to tell at parties (or on blogs!).
The woman stood on that ledge for about an hour and a half. I only watched for about half an hour. At one point it looked as though she was jumping, and I thought I was going to throw up. Instead, I went back down to my office to do some work. Later on, a co-worker radioed me to let me know that the woman was safe. She had changed her mind and climbed back inside the broken window.