Writing on Air

Writing on Air by Jim Paredes


Would you hug a stranger?

Posted on August 11, 2019 by jimparedes

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE – Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) – August 11, 2019 – 12:00am

‘Maybe we should stop being automatically fearful of each other. In life, we will all have to ask for help from people we don’t know.’

On a train from downtown Sydney a few years ago, I found myself sitting across from a tall white man. He was unkempt but not menacing. He was dressed like he was a tradesman wearing that signature neon green jacket. Normally, no one minds anyone during train rides. People enter, sit and get on and off without talking to each other. And so I was surprised when the man seated across from me called my attention to say it was his 53rd birthday tomorrow. I smiled and politely gave him my congratulations. I answered but without really meaning to continue the conversation. I remotely considered the possibility that he could be some kind of crazy guy. I avoided eye contact afterward.

After about two minutes, he addressed me again. He complained that his back hurt so much. I answered, “Is that so?” He kept on. And on. It seemed like he wanted a continuing conversation. I realized I was in a situation where I could not dismiss him and so I conversed with this man. I asked him why his back hurt so much. He said he was born with legs too long and so his back had been hurting for years. He opened his jacket to show me and judging from where his belt was, it did look like he had a short torso.

The next thing he said caught me by surprise. He said he wanted to commit suicide. I was stunned. I knew this was an “uh-oh” moment, to say the least. And I felt I was on the spot somehow. I instinctively looked straight into his eyes and said, “Please don’t.” I had hoped that his next words would be less disturbing since I really did not want to get involved. But he repeated that he wanted to end his life.

Here was a man who was clearly and desperately asking for help. This stranger had dropped his guard and exposed his deep loneliness. I was in full attention and heightened awareness.

I knew I was now in a serious situation I could not turn away from. I felt the magnitude of his pain. He continued talking. Actually, it was more like rambling. I could see his eyes swell up with tears as he narrated that he had lost his parents many years ago. He had no siblings nor a wife and children to come home to. He was miserably alone in his life. He repeated again that he wanted to commit suicide. At this point, I stood up from my seat and moved to where he was and sat down next to him.

I sat on his right side and put my hand behind his back. He started to sob while he covered his face with his hands. His elbows were resting on his knees. I put my left hand over his back, rubbing it as I said, “Please don’t commit suicide. Everything will be all right, sir.”

I did not know what else to say. He started crying uncontrollably. I pulled him closer and kept saying that everything would be okay. I told him that God was with him. I just kept on repeating the words, “It’ll be okay.” He seemed to be listening.

I caught myself hugging this stranger. Hugging is my instinctive way to give comfort and consolation. I wanted him to know that I was listening to him and was sympathetic to what he was going through. There were many other people on the train but they all avoided looking, much less having eye contact. They ignored what was going on.

I just sat there beside him.

Soon, the train had reached the station. It was where I was supposed to get off and transfer to another train to get home. I stayed seated beside him for a while consoling him as passengers got off and new ones came on the train. But I knew I had to leave very soon. I felt bad when I told him I had to leave. I whispered for the last time that, “God loves you, sir. Please don’t commit suicide.” I reluctantly left the train and went to my platform where the train home was ready to depart. I barely caught it. I entered a few seconds before the doors closed.

On the ride home, I sat quietly feeling a little guilty for not staying with him. It was a packed ride but I was alone in my solitude. I was emotional. It was quite a unique encounter I had just had. My mind was racing. Was it fate that I was put on the same train with this lonely man? I wondered if the man would actually kill himself. I wondered, too, whether I had helped him in any way or had done enough to prevent a stranger’s death by his own hands.

I wept silently and said a prayer for him. I prayed that somehow he could go past his feelings of suicide and make it through. I hoped he would go for professional help. I have helped strangers before but I had never faced a situation like this where I was actually bold enough to intervene in something so serious. I did not even know whether I was acting appropriately, culture-wise. Did I say the right things to make him feel better? I just hoped I did.

The next evening, I watched out for any news on television waiting to hear about suicides that may have occurred in the city. There were none. I felt some sort of relief. I will probably never know if he killed himself or not the following nights, or weeks, or even know what eventually happened to him.

I think about this incident often. It makes me wonder how many strangers out there are actually going through something so desperate that the prospect of suicide becomes an option. There are millions of people who live in big cities, and yet, ironically, one can still feel alone and alienated. So many people but no one to talk to. We are all going through something to some degree. But we are lost in our busy schedules trying to survive in this rat race, and we have unfortunately developed an attitude of not caring for others. And because of this, it has become a crueler world for everyone.

Maybe we should stop being automatically fearful of each other. In life, we will all have to ask for help from people we don’t know. I know many people, including myself, who have been beneficiaries of people’s kindness many times. I have also learned that a smile, offering a handshake, a simple hello can even lead to real, solid friendships.

By simply caring, we can all be more human again.

Read more at https://www.philstar.com/lifestyle/sunday-life/2019/08/11/1942232/would-you-hug-stranger#FrvWCpJyWxLtiWCA.99

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