Lessons in compassion

A few months ago, I was walking by the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol where I live. I was leaning against the railing to admire the view when I noticed a middle aged woman wearing a bright pink jacket on the other side of the railing. She was sitting cross legged a few feet from the edge of a sheer drop of 1000 feet. She looked relaxed, as if she had just climbed over the railing to get a better view. So strong is the impulse not to get involved, not to interfere, to remain separate that I rationalised to myself that it was none of my business. I walked on. A few minutes later, it hit me that this woman must have been contemplating suicide and that to do so in a public place was a call for help. Just as I thought about going back to her,  I saw two men in construction clothes leave their work repairing the bridge and go to her. One climbed over the railing, sat down between her and the cliff edge, took her hand and began talking to her. Feeling relieved that someone had come to her rescue, I went on my way. However, I felt uncomfortably aware that I had missed an important opportunity.
Last week, I was walking along a main road to a lecture about Christian-Muslim dialogue when I noticed a young woman sitting in a shop doorway sobbing loudly. Worried about being late, I was walking fast, head down, totally focussed on my destination.  As I zoomed past, the thought popped into my mind that the woman’s grief was not my problem and I hoped she would find relief from her grief. This thought was closely followed by an image of the woman in the pink jacket by the cliff. By this time, I was about 20 feet beyond her but it was as if I hit a brick wall and had to turn back. Without another thought, I wheeled around, went back, sat down beside her and asked if there was any way I could help her. The look of gratitude on her face was enough to convince me that I had done the right thing. I stayed no more than 5 minutes listening to her story and giving her a few words of advice (I couldn’t resist). Then I went on to the lecture which happened to start late so I didn’t miss anything after all.
Both incidents were lessons in compassion, each one a perfect opportunity.

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