Thursday, January 30, 2014

Witness

I'm not sure why I even want to write about this, but I do. It seems so compelling to me. What do you think? 

On Wednesday January 22rd my niece arrived at her job in Beverly Hills only to discover that the parking lot was cordoned off by police tape. Mmmm. Very strange. So she found another parking place and went to work. When she got to her office, she saw everyone was looking out the window to the building across the street. There atop the 15 story building was a naked woman who the police had been trying to talk down for an hour already. The woman paced and paced. She sat with her feet dangling over the edge. My niece and her co-workers watched, clicked photos on their cell phones, one even shot a video. After two more hours of the police talking with the distraught woman, she finally stood up. Everyone in the office was relieved. They thought she had been talked down. Instead, the woman literally flew into the air and flung herself to her death. Everyone was shocked and devastated. (It was later learned that the woman was a very generous and socially-conscious socialite who had been in the building the day before for a routine "nip and tuck" by a famous plastic surgeon. She spent the night in the facility where her caregivers noticed she was quite agitated. She may have been having a psychotic "post-operative neural-behavioral disturbance.") 
Then, on Friday January 24th a dear friend and her daughter went to the coast to watch the waves. The surf contest Mavericks was being held in Half Moon Bay right up the road about 50 miles north. There the waves were 40 feet, but where my friend was in Santa Cruz they were 10 feet, still mighty and crashing. In the late afternoon surfers were hanging out in the big waves, and a lone boogie boarder came into the water. He managed to get himself into a precarious situation where the ocean slams into the steep curved rocks. Several people on the cliffs called 911 to alert them to this boogie boarder's problem. Three rescue people came and talked to the guy. He waved them off. So they left. A short while later, the boogie boarder got into a place where he could not get out. The waves slammed him over and over into the rocks. People on the cliffs were shouting to him, telling him to duck under, to try and save himself. Everyone was frantic. The man could not be saved. All those watching, watched him drown. 


These two stories have been on my mind. Two people I love were witness to two amazingly random moments of horrific death. It made me think about what I would do in such a situation. Could I watch a drama like this unfold? If I could not help in any way, could I still watch? Roger and I have talked about this. He thinks he could watch and also felt that he would watch so that the person could be gazed upon with open-hearted compassion. I believe that. I feel that in my heart. But I know I would have to run away and not see the end unfold. I don't know. What would you do? What would you do?

34 comments:

  1. Good grief robin, what horrific stories. I am so sorry that your niece and friends were exposed to such sadness. What tragic, unnecessary endings. If being unable to help or to get help, I wouldn't be able to watch.

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  2. How terrible for both of the decedents and those who watched. As much as I might like to think I'd turn away, I think I would be mesmerized by the drama unfolding. I'd want to know how it ended.

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  3. I don't think I could watch. I have seen a dog die after being hit by a car, and I can't think of it without a fair amount of distress. When I found my second-to-last doberman, he was beside a busy highway. He ran into the road directly in front of an oncoming truck, and I looked away to avoid seeing him hit. I watched my mother die, but it was not a violent death, only a slow letting go. I don't want to imagine how I would think about seeing another human die in such terrible circumstances.

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  4. Patti-- I wondered if I should post these stories, but I was so blown away by them. I was hoping they would raise interesting questions about ourselves.

    kenju-- I think it is important for people who are strong to be witnesses. I really do.

    Mark-- Yes, you remind me of how I turn away when I know I may see something that distresses me. When we drive home from town, we pass by a dark property with no green grass, only some metal fences and metal stalls for two horses. They are in a horrible dark dank prison. I close my eyes when we drive by. I can't let that image in. It is too difficult to witness suffering.

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  5. I've had situations like that and I would leave. Not to avoid thinking of it but not to be a voyeur to someone else's major trauma. Highways are an easy place to run into this. I think we can send them energy in the best way but still leave. And this might be a difference between men and women; but if I couldn't help, I'd leave.

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  6. Rain-- I was talking to my cousin about this, and she mentioned the highway connection as well. We agree that we would look away from those horrors. So, just wondering if there is a way to look at such horrific scenes that is not voyeuristic for people who look with open-hearted intentionality. I actually never quite understood the "WWJD" phenomenon, but in this situation I might ask myself how would the Buddha respond, besides seeing everything for the utter illusion that it is.

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    1. "open-hearted intentionality" That's it exactly. My first experience outside the monastery was the slums of Seoul Korea and then Calcutta. Of latter I remember lumbering carts collecting all the dead of the streets and sidewalks just before dawn. Little did I know then what a preparation was that experience for the decade of the plague where an open-hearted intention was laid to say 'yes' to suffering and death and be fully present. Their is no wisdom or virtue in such a reckoning , only the yes of truth and the intention of compassion.

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  7. When I was a young teen, I watched two small kids break through some ice on a stream near where it dumped into the Potomac River. I was 50 to 75 yards away. When I got near to where they went in, a group of people had already gathered. My memory is that everyone was actually quite calm and matter of fact, me included. Once the kids' (they were brothers) mom got there in a crazed panic, that is when our emotions kicked in. They never recovered the kids bodies.

    I actually had my worse reaction later that night while staring into the dark trying to go to sleep.

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  8. Reading your post, I immediately remembered Bob Dylan's honest words about why he turned away many years ago:

    on the brooklyn bridge
    he was cockeyed
    an’ stood on the edge
    there was a priest talkin’ to him
    i was shiftin’ myself around
    so i could see from all sides
    in an’ out of stretched necks
    an’ things
    cops held people back
    the lady in back of me
    burst into my groin
    “sick sick some are so sick”
    like a circus trapeze act
    “oh i hope he don’t do it”
    he was on the other side of the railin’
    both eyes fiery wide
    wet with sweat
    the mouth of a shark
    rolled up soiled sleeves
    his arms were thick an’ tattooed
    an’ he wore a silver watch
    i could tell at a glance
    he was uselessly lonely
    i couldn’t stay an’ look at him
    i couldn’t stay an’ look at him
    because i suddenly realized that
    deep in my heart
    i really wanted
    t’ see him jump

    One thing I know is that I was unable to watch the footage from the Vietnam War on television during those war years, and I was haunted by that war anyway.

    If something like what your niece and your dear friend witnessed was happening, and I found myself a witness, I would remember what Roger said about gazing with open-hearted compassion and try for that.

    I think of war and the psychic toll it takes on those who witness horrific scenes with open-hearted compassion and live with resultant life-long PTSD. The human mind can only stand so much. A quote comes to mind (from Stephen Levine), "The mind creates the abyss, the heart crosses it."

    Thank you for asking difficult questions, robin andrea.


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  9. I suppose one would watch hoping for a happy outcome in both instances. If I knew it'd end so tragically I'd probably turn away.
    Well, that's what I think I'd do but I've been kicking around with myself for a long time now and I'm still surprised at my reactions to unusual situations.

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  10. I fear I would watch with horrified fascination all the way to the end, and then I would regret it for the rest of my life. Like Mark P, I too watched as a dog was hit by a car. I can still vividly remember it, even after 40 years.

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  11. MrMacrum-- That is quite a tragic memory. The kind of thing that stays for a lifetime.

    am-- I don't know that bob dylan song. Interesting lyrics. I can't imagine wanting someone to jump, and yet I know that people shout "jump" to those who are standing on bridges and rooftops. It's an emotion I simply don't understand. I would want to run up and hug them and promise them a better future. There are some moments in life that become indelible images in our psyches. I guess that's why I would want to "control" what I see.

    John-- Oh if only we knew what the outcome would be, the happiest one I would stay and watch. Yes. To be a witness of a woman who turns away from the edge, or the boogie boarder who grabs hold of a rocky point and keeps his head above water. Oh what moments those would be.

    Pablo-- I think I would look, turn my head away, look, turn my head away. Then, when it became too much, I would turn away and not look back. It's self-protection.

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  12. People do rubberneck past any accident. You see it happen. I am not sure what they hope to see but it's well known they do it. I think we could send energy without watching. I did though watch a bear one year at Yellowstone. It was across a wide canyon and trying to find a way up. In that sense, the watching was hoping it would find it since if it fell, it'd be killed. Sometimes we could watch sending energy for the one to find the right way to survive. I suppose it all comes down to motive. Was it curiosity or was it an ability to actually help that wasn't what many know about but can be. The bear made it up by the way :)

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  13. Rain-- It is such an interesting thing, rubbernecking past an accident, and yet as you say, it does happen all the time. I think the important thing is what is the intention of the heart. Thrill or compassion? I look away because I find anguish and distress unbearable.

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  14. When we lived in Wisconsin for a few years in the 1960's, my brother had a friend whose mother jumped off a bridge near our house. People were flocking to watch the woman struggle and drown. My mom forbid us from going to watch. I've always respected her for that... We humans can really be morbid sometimes. Truly sad tales, Robin.

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  15. I definitely would not stick around to see the results, especially if there were "proper" emergency personnel present. What could I do for these people, and why is it any of my business?

    I, too, don't want to be haunted by having seen terrible things. Imagine how bad soldiers with PTSD must have it. One day, driving on a freeway in St. Petersburg, Florida, I looked across the median at the four opposing lanes of freeway traffic and saw a cat darting (or trying to dart) across the road. I don't know what happened to the cat, but the image haunts me to this day 25 years later.

    Thanks for sharing these stories, Robin Andrea. Clearly, you've "hit a nerve" with your readers (including me)--a good thing!

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  16. Annie-- That is such an interesting story. I can imagine coming upon a scene by pure happenstance, but to flock to it really sounds creepy and morbid. I think your mom took good care of your tender hearts.

    Scott-- You remind me of an old story. My siblings and I were driving to our grandfather's funeral. Let's just say that Poppy (what we called him) was not our favorite human being on the planet. He was an an ogre and vulgarian. On the way, we saw a dog running around on the highway, trying to cross it. We were deeply saddened by what was unfolding. I think we pulled over to try to help, but the dog kept running and was hit by a car and killed. What I remember is that we felt worse about that poor dog than we ever felt for the man whose funeral we were attending.

    I thank you for bringing up PTSD. I had not thought of that, but I think you are absolutely correct. It is a haunting.

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  17. And then, I just found this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IG-NnvPyEaw

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  18. Once I determined that I could not do anything to help the situation, I would run. I've become less tolerant of violence of any kind and I could not watch if I could not help.

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  19. NCmountainwoman-- Yes, the word "violence" describes the moment and emotion for me as well. I think I may have a new mantra: I cannot watch, if I cannot help.

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  20. I am so very sorry about those deaths and your loved ones (and the others) who witnessed them.

    Many years ago, I saw the immediate aftermath of a public suicide (a self-immolation on the town common). Initially, I didn't know what had happened, except that something very, very bad had happened.
    I was driving up a hill into the center of town and saw very black smoke rising into the air. It looked to be coming from the area of the town common (you can't see the common until you crest the hill) and it was too dark to be wood smoke. It made no sense to me; I thought maybe a local restaurant had a kitchen fire. When I got to the top of the hill, there were groups of people standing on the sidewalks around the common, watching as a fireman was spraying something that was lying on the ground. Mind you, I was in a car, driving towards the scene since I had been planning on parking beside the common, and I could *feel* the atmosphere of horror. Have you walked into a room and felt the emotion of the people there, without even having a chance to talk to them, or even look at them closely? It was like that, but the entire center of town was permeated by a stunned horror and grief. I found a parking place and was walking with my dog towards my mother's office at a local college and passed a police officer. I asked what happened. He told me, and I hurried on with my fist pretty much ground into my mouth. I didn't rubberneck at all.
    That night, I awoke in a terror of death, confused about why I felt that way, until I remembered that I had seen that horror. For the next year and a half, fading slowly over that time, I would wake at night with a very uncharacteristic panic about dying. PTSD, I guess, although I hadn't even witnessed the worst of it.
    So experience has taught me: I know for certain that I would look away.

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  21. CCorax-- That is such a sad and horrifying experience. Yikes. Self-immolation has such a brutal intentionality. I can't even imagine what it must be like to be so near such a moment. The photos of monks protesting the war in Vietnam have stayed with me from the moment I saw them. Your experience is the definition of trauma.

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  22. It seems to me that conscious compassionate people of our generation are standing on the edge as witness to end of a remarkable and historic awakening to realize that the Morlocks have won the war. To me nothing is more important than resistance by witness, recording, making art and telling the stories.

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  23. karmanot-- Ah, now that's a witnessing we must do. We must stand on that edge and wave good bye to the dream. We cannot look away.

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  24. It's a always a hard moment when someone is dying and you realize you can't do anything to save them. If you are a witness to that then somehow that person isn't dying alone. I don't know if that makes any difference when dying. Maybe just my stuff. Some deaths are harder to bear witness to than others I think. I'm not sure how long I could watch. I supposed until I was certain they were gone. Just to have honored their presence.

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  25. An interesting question, but I'm quite certain I couldn't watch. If someone had a heart attack or fatal wound, I think I could remain with them, to try to comfort them. But I could not watch and wait for the outcome of the suicide or surf accident. I would be too anxious to be of help, and afraid of outcome. I don't even like seeing a dead deer or dog on the side of road, and their deaths were probably instant. The honoring of life can take many forms. lindaj

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  26. jsk-- Yes, some deaths are harder to bear witness to than others. I think that's conundrum.The end result is the same, but it's that tragic journey that challenges our hearts.

    lindaj-- Yes, those kinds of moments -- the heart attack or fatal wound-- may be easier to witness and offer comfort. It's a different kind of tragedy, one where you could kneel by their side and hold their hand. Perhaps it's the distance, the inability to touch, to look in their eyes, to offer solace that makes the woman on the roof and the man in the sea harder to witness.

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  27. This brings up memories of finding myself in a very dangerous situation in a kayak about 15 years ago. I noted briefly that there were observers on the shore, but all my attention was spent trying to stay alive.

    Would I watch an event unfold as you've described? I'm all in with the compassion approach as Roger noted, but I guess if I was struggling to stay alive among the rocks I'd prefer to meet my end without onlookers (911 calls aside). So no, I don't think I'd watch.

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  28. def59485-- You provide such an unexpected perspective on this question. Thank you for that. We are glad that your experience didn't turn out tragically, and that you are still here. Thank you.

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  29. First off, I'm sorry that that your niece and then your friend had to witness these two events. I feel a different emotion about these things. I feel anger. Anger towards the woman for the way she did it. If she wanted to die, then do it privately. Why expose all those innocent people to the drama of the whole thing? I understand she was out of her mind (of course), but the trauma she caused others is a terrible thing.

    The guy in the water...
    Everybody watching was yelling at him. Rescue folks came to help him. Yet, he waived them all off. Was he embarrassed, crazy or just stupidly macho? Again, he died and surely traumatized those innocent folks who just happened to be there.

    I can tell you what I would do. I would not watch. If any of my family was with me, I wouldn't let them watch either. Seeing people die like these two (violently) is not good for us on any level. I saw way too many bad endings in the first half of my life and never want to see any more...

    Robin, this was a great and thought provoking post. Deep stuff...

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  30. It's rare that I'm gripped by an emotion so raw and so painful as the one that's got me right now. Reading about the incidents, and then reading the comments, exposed a painful nerve, I guess. I can only imagine how I might react, but my imagination tells me I would be torn apart. I would want to help, if I could, but if I could not, my helplessness would just rip me to shreds. I like Roger's perspective, but I'm not sure I have enough self-discipline to feel that way. Oh, these circumstances are just too horrible to consider. You have raised issues, Robin, that won't leave my thoughts for a very long time.

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  31. Pat-- Sadly, I think the woman was having a psychotic event, induced by an anesthetic she'd had the day before. She had no idea who she was or why she was naked on the roof. Part of that tragedy is that it was not an intentional suicide.

    The drowning man was not a local. He probably came to part of the big waves on the day of Mavericks. I think he had no idea how much trouble he was in until it was too late. Yes, probably a bit of macho embarrassment that cost him his life.

    Yes, sometimes we have to look away if we cannot help.

    John-- I found these two deaths very haunting. The very public nature of them, the unintended consequences, the inability for onlookers to help-- all of that raised so many emotions in me. The best part of me wanted to channel something wise and kind, and the other best part of me wanted turn my head and cry.

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  32. These are moving, well-told stories, visual, lean and unsentimental. Grim as they are, I thank you.

    I've just found you via Julie Zickefoose. I'll be back.

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  33. Banjo52-- Thank you so much for stopping by. I appreciate hearing from you and knowing that you found these stories moving. Sometimes we have to tell these stories as grim as they are.

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