“Never underestimate the difference YOU can make in the lives of others. Step forward, reach out and help. This week reach to someone that might need a lift.”
It is 4:49pm on a Monday evening and I’ve just got home from work. The reason I open with this is because I normally arrive home at 3pm. To get to my flat, I had to step over dog shit – brown, disgusting and covered in flies. I stepped over it because I didn’t want it to contaminate my clothes. I didn’t want to be infected by its smell and disease.
The word ‘shit’, according to the Oxford English Dictionary can be defined as, “faeces” or
“a contemptible or worthless person”.
As I write, I am shaken, angry; at a loss for words. I write to bring clarity to my thoughts and order to the events of the past hour. I also write because I am deeply challenged by what I have just seen and hope that you will be too.
I had gone to the printers in my home town to collect some prints for a client and as I drove, I saw it, or rather, I saw her. At first glance the shape was indistinguishable among the bags of rubbish that were strewn in front of the pub gate. I slowed down, eager for a closer look and realised it was a woman. I pulled over and started to approach her when a voice called over and casually told me to leave her alone. I turned to find a man on a ladder working on scaffolding.
He explained rather casually that the woman had been there for some time. His voice faded as I walked toward the woman and saw that her hands were purple and brown mucus was dangling from her mouth and nose. I poked her foot to see if she was awake when the man’s voice interrupted me. He explained again that “those people” do that all the time and by ‘that’, he meant, drank heavily and abused drugs.
I stepped towards him, aware that people walked passed; some sneering, others chattering to their friends and others stepping around her without looking in her direction. As the man spoke, telling me to not waste my time, his words were drowned out by the resounding thoughts thundering around my head.
THAT IS A PERSON. A HUMAN BEING. A WOMAN SLUMPED AMONG RUBBISH, UNCONSCIOUS, WITH PURPLE HANDS AND COVERED IN VOMIT.
I snapped, “This is not OK. We cannot and should not be OK with this. That woman’s hands are purple. There is a person slumped among the rubbish”. The man repeated himself and told me about the problems with “those sorts of people”. He was not mean. He was just matter of fact and explained the futility of trying to help them, stressing that “if you call for help now, she’ll only do the same thing again tomorrow and you’ll be back to square one”. I walked away from him and decided to call for an ambulance.
I write all of this, not to celebrate my heroism. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and I also just happened to give a damn. It would’ve been so easy to walk on by, to step over her, after all I had things to do get done at home. But giving a damn is often costly, sometimes dangerous, is always inconvenient and may mean we risk ‘contamination’. But honestly? I prefer it to the alternative.
So back to the shit outside my house. I stepped over it. Others stepped around it, fearing contamination and rightfully so.
But HOW HAVE WE COME TO DO THIS TO PEOPLE? MEMBERS OF THE HUMAN RACE JUST LIKE US. WE STEP OVER THEM; AROUND THEM, FEARING CONTAMINATION.
Had this woman become that? Had she, through a series of unknown and unfortunate circumstances become a “contemptible and worthless person”? That makes my heart break.
And how have we become so desensitised to it that we ignore a person, a woman, slumped among rubbish bags that we don’t bother to call the emergency services? I don’t blame the man for saying what he did; he was used to seeing it. Nor do I blame the many people who passed by. But I am angry and I am deeply challenged.
A car pulled up and a man, who happened to be a nurse came and helped before the paramedics (the real heroes who don’t wear capes) arrived and took over. They stepped towards her and got involved in her story. They got their hands dirty. From what they were saying the woman’s condition had worsened so they very quickly placed her on a stretcher and wheeled her in the ambulance. That woman could be dead now and I’ll never know. I’ll probably never see her again.
If that’s the case, I wonder what would’ve happened if someone chose to step towards her instead of stepping over her. Could she have got aid sooner? One can only speculate but I remain challenged. It is wrong, and I use that word emphatically, that we allow ourselves to be desensitised to that degree – where human beings fade among the rubbish. That a woman with purple hands and covered in mucus can be stepped over as someone steps over faeces.
With sirens wailing, the ambulance drove away with the sound fading as it disappeared from view. As I walked back to my car, thoughts circled my mind that both challenged and provoked me; thoughts which made me consider the type of person I want to be. In writing these, I hope they do the same to you.
I want to be someone who walks around with his eyes and his heart open. I want to be willing to risk ‘contamination’ for the sake of another. I want to be wise in my approach but willing to get my hands dirty for the sake of someone else. I want to be someone who is open to interruptions if it means someone else is better off. And I want to be someone who learns to be comfortable with the cost and inconvenienceof putting myself out for other people.
Step Out! Reach Out! Step Towards!
Until the next time.
NB: The images used throughout this piece are my own. I took them once the paramedics had taken over, which in itself raises bigger questions.
I will address these questions In Part 2.