I Saw a Man on the Ledge of the Golden Gate Bridge Today

My family saw a man standing on the ledge of the Golden Gate Bridge contemplating suicide today. We were on a bike ride across the bridge and back on a gloriously clear spring day. As we took some pictures near the south tower, we noticed the crowds strangely looking toward the center of the bridge and not out at San Francisco or Alcatraz, as is often the case. Two police officers on bicycles hurried up and a tourist near the tower pointed them toward a small group of people gathered near the rail about forty yards from us. One of the cops uttered, “Shit,” and they both pedaled hard to the location where a young man in a green sweatshirt and bluejeans stood beyond the rail, his back to the bridge.

My family stayed where we were and except for a few more onlookers, the majority of the pedestrian and bicycle traffic continued and seemed not to notice the crisis. I could see the two police talking with the man, who, at this point had turned around and faced the bridge, though he squatted on his haunches and didn’t look people in the eye. We eventually continued our trek across the bridge. At Vista Point, on the north side of the bridge we saw another police officer watching the scene through a pair of binoculars. I figured as long as he was there, the man was still on the bridge.

The Coast Guard deployed boats and jet skis near the bridge, but whether that is standard procedure whenever there is a possible jumper or only when they know they need to retrieve a body, I am not sure. I do not know what happened to the man. I only know that after several minutes, the police officer with the binoculars was gone and the Coast Guard vessels broke formation. On our return trip across the bridge, we saw no signs of the prior events. The crowd had dispersed, the police were gone, and new sightseers enjoyed their journey across the landmark, oblivious to the fact that just a short time before, a young man at least contemplated ending his life by jumping into San Francisco Bay.

The experience horrified me. Again, I do not know whether the policemen were successful in talking the man back onto the bridge. I pray that they were. I am not sure what was the appropriate response to this man’s situation. We left because we knew there was not much we could do—the police who work on the bridge are well trained in suicide prevention. During my internship as a hospital chaplain I saw death, but I have never seen a suicide. Today I did not want to watch a man take his life. I did not want that image in my memory. At the same time, I wonder if I should have stood as a witness, to be able to name I saw that man. To be a testament for him. To claim to someone his life is worthwhile. Should I have watched because though he may not want to live, I cannot accept that he would no longer exist?

I whispered prayers into my son’s ear as we rode along the bridge, asking for God’s mercy to be on that man. I asked that he might know the glory and hope of Christ’s resurrection. I prayed that he might know he is deeply loved. I hope he survived. I hope he came back onto the bridge.

For some reason, this passage from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing comes to mind:

Things separate from their stories have no meaning. They are only shapes. Of a certain size and color. A certain weight. When their meaning has become lost to us they no longer have even a name. The story on the other hand can never be lost from its place in the world for it is that place. And that is what was to be found here. The corrido. The tale. And like all corridos it ultimately told one story only, for there is only one to tell.

Stop Learning and Start Thinking

In his TEDx talk, “Forget What You Know,” Jacob Barnett says we should at times stop learning and start thinking. Barnett is the world’s youngest astrophysics researcher. His thesis and stories form a compelling picture despite the talk’s organization and delivery being a bit rough around the edges. Through recounting the history of his field, he shows how figures like Newton and Einstein developed some of their most seminal theorems when they were prevented from participating in academia—in the case of Newton he was avoiding the plague and Einstein could only find work as a patent clerk due to antisemitism in Europe. Innovation happens when we are free to think freely.

I found Barnett’s thesis challenging since my instinct is to do more research. When I write, I rarely feel confident that I have an adequate grasp of my subject. There are always more books and articles to read. I worry I am missing some important bit of information that will either make my point stronger, or disprove it altogether, which will make me look like a fool. Deadlines save me from endless inquiry because they force me to think and write.

I wonder how I can incorporate Barnett’s exhortation better into my life. I love learning and I don’t want to give up on it. I have to fight the temptation to learn just for the sake of learning. Learning must have a goal beyond the accumulation of more information. The challenge is not only to use what we have learned, but also think of new possibilities. Barnett reminds me that space for thinking doesn’t magically materialize. We must intentionally make space. Put the book down. Close the web browser. Silence the voices of discouragement. And think.

“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” John 13.14 (NRSV)

Osservatore Romano/EPA

I post this picture of Pope Francis washing and kissing the feet of people on Maundy Thursday of this year as a record, a reminder to myself of what Jesus’ ongoing ministry in the world is supposed to look like. This is one of the most beautiful and true and holy pictures I’ve seen in a while. I am challenged by my brother in Christ.

Civility Project: “I Never Argue,” or What Flannery O’Connor’s “The Barber” Can Teach the Internet

Flannery O’Connor’s posthumously published short story, “The Barber” offers us much wisdom in our age of internet arguments. O’Connor tells the story of Rayber, a liberal college professor in a Southern town arguing about an upcoming election with a barber who holds segregationist views. Over the course of the story Rayber fumes, obsesses with proving the rude barber wrong, seeks solace from like-minded colleagues, and ultimately punches the barber when his arguments prove ineffective. The story calls out the futility of arguing with people who have no desire to change their minds. It also reminds us that others may not find our reasoning as persuasive as we do.

The comment sections beneath news stories and on Reddit, tweets, and the feeds on Facebook brim with arguments like those found in “The Barber.” Some people try to remain calm like Rayber, believing that sound reasoning will always win the day and that everyone is able to be convinced if they simply heard the best argument. Others take the barber’s tack, drawing quick conclusions about their opponents and throwing around dismissive insults. In many ways Rayber and the barber are more similar than they would like to admit. Both carry the conviction they are right and have closed their minds to other views. Both want the last word.

In my favorite part of the story, Rayber reads a paper to Jacobs, his colleague who teaches philosophy and holds similar views about democracy and race. Jacobs listens to the paper, which Rayber believes will prove his point against the barber.

“Well,” Jacobs said, “so what? What do you call yourself doing?” He had been jotting figures down on a record sheet all the time Rayber was reading.

Rayber wondered if he was busy. “Defending myself against barbers,” he said. “You ever tried to argue with a barber?”

“I never argue,” Jacobs said.

“That’s because you don’t know this kind of ignorance,” Rayber explained. “You’ve never experienced it.”

Jacobs snorted. “Oh, yes, I have,” he said.

“What happened?”

“I never argue.”

“But you know you’re right,” Rayber persisted.

“I never argue.”

Perhaps before we comment on a story or post an opinion we should ask ourselves Jacobs’s questions: “Well…so what? What do you call yourself doing?” Are we going into the discussion to learn more about the other person’s position? Are we willing to change our views? Do we want to add to the discussion with the hope that the community’s knowledge and wisdom increases as we consider different perspectives? Or do we want to prove someone else wrong and show them just how smart we are? Do we enter these discussions so that we might win an argument?

My point is not to say that all debate is futile—I do not think that is the message of, “The Barber.” Otherwise, we should simply retreat to our corners and interact only with people who already agree with us. Nor do I believe there are not some views that should be rebuffed outright. Rather, I believe most of the time we should engage different points of view when we are open to learn and change. I hope we can better discern when others are willing to do the same. That does not mean we give up core convictions, but that we allow our perspectives to broaden. We can then shape better opinions, meaning we are more informed when we accept or reject the other person’s reasoning.

In what has become an annual ritual, I have fasted from Facebook during Lent. I noticed again more peace in my life as I did not engage in so many arguments. Getting some distance from Facebook allowed me to better appreciate the story of “The Barber.” Jacobs’s words to Rayber stung. I’m guilty of wanting the last word and desiring to win rather than to learn. I need to hear Jacobs’s questions as well as remember his motto, “I never argue.”

If O’Connor’s story doesn’t make the point succinctly enough, I present this xkcd comic from Randall Munroe, who shows the reality of many internet arguments: