The other day I witnessed something awful. I was working on the Fremont Bridge here in Seattle. It’s 30 feet off the water. Right next to it is the Aurora Bridge, which is 170 feet off the water. Before they put up the higher railing on the Aurora Bridge, the only bridge in the world more known for suicides was the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Fortunately the higher railing has reduced our statistics dramatically, but some people are extremely determined.
It had been a really good day at work. The end of my shift was fast approaching and I was looking forward to going home. Then I heard the sirens. I looked up, and there, standing on the thin, fragile railing, 170 feet above the canal, was a teenaged boy. He stood there, motionless, as the fire engines and police cars gathered around him. They didn’t get too close. Several officers were trying to talk to him, but he wasn’t acknowledging anyone, as far as I could tell. He just stood there, on the brink of death, gazing off to the horizon.
And I felt like a bug pinned to a display board. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t look away. All I could do is quietly say, “Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it, oh God, please don’t do it.” My heart was pounding. I felt sick. I have never felt so helpless in my entire life.
I’ve been a bridgetender since 2001. This isn’t my first rodeo. But in the past I’ve only experienced the aftermath. I’ve either heard them hit (which is a sound you’ll never forget), or I’ve heard the fire engine race up and them coax the guy down. This time I had a front row seat for the most pivotal moment in someone’s life, and I couldn’t do anything to help.
Then a woman came running up the sidewalk, her arms outstretched. An officer stopped her just short of the boy. He still didn’t move. He stood there for 30 minutes. It felt like an eternity.
Then, thankfully, he decided to climb down. But to do this he had to make a 180 degree turn on that railing and squat down. That was the scariest part for me. I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it suck if he changed his mind and now he accidentally fell?”
Eventually he got down and they were able to get him in the ambulance. They drove away and reopened the bridge to traffic and everything went back to normal. Sort of. But meanwhile I was nauseous from the adrenaline dump. I went home to an empty house and had no one to talk to about it. Oddly I was ravenously hungry, but was so sick I couldn’t eat until the next day, after having had several nightmares.
Post Traumatic Stress. That’s a problem. Because it won’t be the last jumper I witness when I work on this bridge. All my coworkers have seen several. And they say it’s worse when they actually jump, especially when they hit the ground or a building instead of the water. Clearly, I’m going to need some coping skills if I’m going to deal with this on a regular basis.
So I decided to take advantage of my Employee Assistance Program and see a counselor. I had my first appointment yesterday. We talked about suicide and what it means to me personally and what it means in general, and she gave me several things to think about.
She said that some people are in so much emotional pain and feel so out of control that they take the control of the one thing that everyone can potentially control—their death. It’s an awful choice to make, but some people may think it’s the only one they have. Others are under the influence of drugs and are making irrational choices in general and this is just another one of those irrational choices. She also said it was normal for me to feel sympathy for this person’s pain and confusion. That’s a very human reaction.
Then we discussed the difference between sympathy and empathy, because that’s what I clearly have to work on. Here are the definitions:
noun, plural sympathies.
- The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
I have always taken pride in the fact that I’m a fairly empathetic individual. I can put myself into other people’s emotional shoes and act toward them accordingly. This is a skill that not everyone possesses. I get frustrated by insensitive, oblivious people. But it never occurred to me that sometimes empathy is not the best thing to have.
Because, you see, I took that young man’s emotional pain into my body. I mean, I really felt it. And because of that I had to deal with it in the aftermath, kind of like having to expel poison. Not good.
So my homework, probably for the rest of my life, is to learn to not take people’s pain on board. It’s okay to feel sympathy, pity, sadness for that person and what they are going through, but I really need to not take it into my soul. It isn’t mine. It doesn’t belong to me, and I don’t have to take ownership of it. What a concept.
Wish me luck.
Sunrise, a boat race, and my view of the Aurora Bridge from work.
18 thoughts on “Sympathy vs. Empathy”
The worst part of being witness to someone else’s life, is that it will always be a part of you. Like the loss of a loved one. Sometimes these moments have such a powerful impact, that at times when we least expect them… the images bounce back into our conscious mind, and the memory is there again full-blown. You may always wonder where and what is happening to this boy in the future.
That’s probably true. I hope he’s getting the help he needs.
An ex-stepbrother who had apparently gotten religion was overheard telling someone that his god would punish someone who chose to end their life. I did not obtrude on that discussion but I felt that a god that cruel did not deserve any respect, because someone who wants to do that is already miserable enough. Of course, like any sane person, I would hope that the misery can be lifted by removing its cause(s). But that might not always be possible.
Counseling seems like a good idea for you. Hope you get a better one than some that I’ve had.
So far, so good…
Being empathetic is good in many ways. But your counselor was right. You can’t let it get out of control. I had to learn that lesson many years ago. So good luck!
I suspect that it’s one of those lessons I’ll have to learn over and over and over again. Like, I’ve got to stop eating at buffets. I always leave feeling slightly sick.
It’s easier said than done. I’m glad you took a counsellor’s help. I can’t imagine what I would do if I were in your position. Hope it works out!
I did a post about the Golden Gate bridge and its ranking as the number one suicide destination. It was a good post. I grew up looking at that bridge.
Tried hopping over to your page and did a search on Golden Gate. Lots of interesting stuff came up, but not the post you’re referring to, I don’t think. So if you can, please post a link to it here. I’d love to read it.
try searching suicide… or I will do it and then tell you what to search, or the name of the post.
I found it by searching suicide… it came up second… after a picture of a cow wearing a suicide bomber’s belt. The post was called: Pardon me, but before you leap to your watery doom, would you mind filling out this questionnaire first?
Oh yeah! Here it is! http://pouringmyartout.wordpress.com/2013/12/03/pardon-me-but-before-you-leap-to-your-watery-doom-would-you-mind-filling-out-this-questionnaire-first/ And I should have remembered it, because you wrote it after reading one *I* wrote: https://theviewfromadrawbridge.wordpress.com/2013/12/03/contemplating-suicide-what-id-say-to-a-jumper/ Kind of scary that the dark little corners of our minds inspire each other.
and that we both forgot about the other’s post… HA!
Sad, but true.
I shudder when I hear these kinds of stories about the Aurora Bridge. I used to live in an apartment across Lake Union with a front row view of it, and I could often see emergency vehicles gathered up there for one reason or another.
I am not a fan of that bridge, and I get the heebie jeebies every time I cross it. I both empathize and sympathize with you on this one.