Compass Newsletter Summer 2010 No.10
“I would never let the least fear or despair come before me, but if I cannot see the road, nor the goal for the fog, I would simply sit down and wait : I would not allow the fog to make me think no road was there, and that I was not to pass it. The fogs must lift.”
– William Q. Judge, Letters That Have Helped Me. 2:3
By E. A. Holmes
We all know how much we react to our surroundings, how happy we are in congenial company, for instance, and how lost we feel among strangers. But I only realized how much our surroundings react towards us when a friend — a big black mongrel dog — told me all about it. I happened to be passing his way at the time, and must have been wrapped in thought, with a frown on my face, for as I approached he stood up and growled. Of course, when I saw him, my frown vanished and in its place something approaching a smile must have appeared, for my friend ceased growling and lay down again.
In this little incident I found food for plenty of thought. Some of us believe that life doles out to us exactly what we earn, in the way of “good” or “bad” fortune. But there seems to be no fixed standard, between one person and another, as to what really constitutes good or bad fortune. Put two people in exactly the same surroundings and circumstances, and one may feel grand, the other miserable. You may put one among thieves and know that he will be robbed; while another may find these same thieves to be the kindest-hearted people in the world.
We talk of rubbing people the wrong way, but we are continually rubbing our circumstances one way or another. If we could learn to approach things in the right fashion we should surely find that there is no such thing as bad fortune, for at our very approach the complexion of circumstances would change, just as my friend the black dog altered his mind as I altered my face.
It may be that this reaction of our circumstances towards us will explain a lot more than we think. It would almost seem that each of us creates his or her own world according to the way each of us looks at it. Some people have strife in their minds, and thus see nature “red in tooth and claw”; others have compassion in their hearts, and can see how every life depends on other lives. Some have lack of balance in their character, and see life as meaningless chaos; others have beauty in their eyes, and thus see harmony and proportion in all creation.
A smile is as sunlight, and what easier way is there to make the sun shine from another’s face than to send out a gleam from one’s own ?
(Printed in Sunrise magazine, October/November 2005; copyright © 2005 Theosophical University Press)
Taken from The Independent newspaper 13/6/10
SYDNEY — In those bleak moments when the lost souls stood atop the cliff, wondering whether to jump, the sound of the wind and the waves was broken by a soft voice. “Why don’t you come and have a cup of tea ?”, the stranger would ask. And when they turned to him, his smile was often their salvation.
For almost 50 years, Don Ritchie has lived across the street from Australia’s most notorious suicide spot, a rocky cliff at the entrance to Sydney Harbour called The Gap. And in that time, the man widely regarded as a guardian angel has shepherded countless people away from the edge. What some consider grim, Ritchie considers a gift. How wonderful, the former life insurance salesman says, to save so many. How wonderful to sell them life.
“You can’t just sit there and watch them,” says Ritchie, now 84, perched on his beloved green leather chair, from which he keeps a watchful eye on the cliff outside. “You gotta try and save them. It’s pretty simple.” Since the 1800s, Australians have flocked to The Gap to end their lives, with little more than a 3-foot (1 meter) fence separating them from the edge. Local officials say around one person a week commits suicide there, and in January, the Woollahra Council applied for 2.1 million Australian dollars ($1.7 million) in federal funding to build a higher fence and overhaul security. In the meantime, Ritchie keeps up his voluntary watch. The council recently named Ritchie and Moya, his wife of 58 years, 2010’s Citizens of the Year.
He’s saved 160 people, according to the official tally, but that’s only an estimate. Ritchie doesn’t keep count. He just knows he’s watched far more walk away from the edge than go over it. Dianne Gaddin likes to believe Ritchie was at her daughter’s side before she jumped in 2005. Though he can’t remember now, she is comforted by the idea that Tracy felt his warmth in her final moments. “He’s an angel,” she says. “Most people would be too afraid to do anything and would probably sooner turn away and run away. But he had the courage and the charisma and the care and the magnetism to reach people who were coming to the end of their tether.”
Something about Ritchie exudes a feeling of calm. His voice has a soothing raspiness to it, and his pale blue eyes are gentle. Though he stands tall at just over 6’2″ (an inch shorter, he notes with a grin, than he used to be), he hardly seems imposing. Each morning, he climbs out of bed, pads over to the bedroom window of his modest, two-story home, and scans the cliff. If he spots anyone standing alone too close to the precipice, he hurries to their side. Some he speaks with are fighting medical problems, others suffering mental illness. Sometimes, the ones who jump leave behind reminders of themselves on the edge — notes, wallets, shoes. Ritchie once rushed over to help a man on crutches. By the time he arrived, the crutches were all that remained.
In his younger years, he would occasionally climb the fence to hold people back while Moya called the police. He would help rescue crews haul up the bodies of those who couldn’t be saved. And he would invite the rescuers back to his house afterward for a comforting drink. It all nearly cost him his life once. A chilling picture captured decades ago by a local news photographer shows Ritchie struggling with a woman, inches from the edge. The woman is seen trying to launch herself over the side — with Ritchie the only thing between her and the abyss. Had she been successful, he would have gone over, too. These days he keeps a safer distance. The council installed security cameras this year and the invention of mobile phones means someone often calls for help before he crosses the street. But he remains available to lend an ear, though he never tries to counsel, advise or pry. He just gives them a warm smile, asks if they’d like to talk and invites them back to his house for tea. Sometimes, they join him. “I’m offering them an alternative, really,” Ritchie says. “I always act in a friendly manner. I smile.”
A smile cannot, of course, save everyone; the motivations behind suicide are too varied. But simple kindness can be surprisingly effective. Mental health professionals tell the story of a note left behind by a man who jumped off San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. “If one person smiles at me on the way to the bridge”, the man wrote, “I will not jump”.
“By offering compassion, Ritchie helps those who are suicidal think beyond the terrible present moment”, says psychiatrist Gordon Parker, executive director of the Black Dog Institute, a mood disorder research center that has supported the council’s efforts to improve safety at The Gap.
“They often don’t want to die, it’s more that they want the pain to go away,” Parker says. “So anyone that offers kindness or hope has the capacity to help a number of people.” Kevin Hines wishes someone like Ritchie was there the day he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000. For 40 agonizing minutes, the then-19-year-old paced the bridge, weeping, and hoping someone would ask him what was wrong. One tourist finally approached — but simply asked him to take her picture. Moments later, he jumped. Hines, who suffers from bipolar disorder, was severely injured, but eventually recovered. Today he says if one person had shown they were not blind to his pain, he probably would never have jumped. “A smile can go a long way — caring can go even further. And the fact that he offers them tea and he just listens, he’s really all they wanted,” Hines says. “He’s all a lot of suicidal people want.”
In 2006, the government recognized Ritchie’s efforts with a Medal of the Order of Australia, among the nation’s highest civilian honors. It hangs on his living room wall above a painting of a sunshine someone left in his mailbox. On it is a message calling Ritchie “an angel that walks amongst us.” He smiles bashfully. “It makes you — oh, I don’t know,” he says, looking away. “I feel happy about it.” But he speaks readily and fondly of one woman he saved, who came back to thank him. He spotted her sitting alone one day, her purse already beyond the fence. He invited her to his house to meet Moya and have tea. The couple listened to her problems and shared breakfast with her. Eventually, her mood improved and she drove home. A couple of months later, she returned with a bottle of champagne. And about once a year, she visits or writes, assuring them she is happy and well.
There have been a few, though, that he could not save. One teenager ignored his coaxings and suddenly jumped. A wind blew the boy’s hat into Ritchie’s outstretched hand. He later found out the teen had lived next door, years earlier. His mother brought Ritchie flowers and thanked him for trying. If you couldn’t have talked him out of it, she told him, no one could. Despite all he has seen, he says he is not haunted by the ones who were lost. He cannot remember the first suicide he witnessed, and none have plagued his nightmares. He says he does his best with each person, and if he loses one, he accepts that there was nothing more he could have done. Nor have he and Moya ever felt burdened by the location of their home. “I think, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that we live here and we can help people? ‘” Moya says, her husband nodding in agreement.
Their life has been a good one, they say. They raised three beautiful daughters and now have three grandchildren to adore. They have traveled the world, and their home is decorated with statues and masks from their journeys. Ritchie proudly points out a dried, shellacked piranha — a souvenir from their vacation to the Amazon, where he insisted on swimming with the creatures (to Moya’s dismay). Until about a year ago, the former Navy seaman enjoyed a busy social life, regularly lunching with friends. But battles with cancer and his advancing years have taken their toll, and now he spends most days at home with Moya, buried in a good book. His current read: the Dalai Lama’s “The Art of Happiness.”
Every now and then, he looks up from his books to scan the horizon for anyone who might need him. He’ll keep doing so, he says, for as long as he’s here. And when he’s not ? He chuckles softly. “I imagine somebody else will come along and do what I’ve been doing.”
He gazes through the glass door to the cliff outside. And his face is lit with a smile.
It’s a busy world which suggests to many of us that something is only of value if there is a ‘doing’ involved. Organise, activate, follow. If we feel we are ‘doing’ something then we are being of use. Busying ourselves looking at this, doing that. Busy, busy, busy. All in the genuine belief that without some outward gesture or statement, nothing will change.
However, something is happening, and it’s all around us, and the opportunity is always available for us to be a part of it. Every second of every minute of every hour, everything is in motion. Nothing is static. Everything is adjusting, pushing, slacking, quickening, slowing. It’s all happening whether we are aware of it or whether we are not. One morning, very early, I was standing in the garden. It was silent, or so I thought. Then I listened. I became aware of a whole world that was alive. The distant sound of a car engine taking someone to an early start of work. Sheep bleating in a nearby field. A cow mooing to the early sunrise. Birds waking, preparing for the day to come. And myself, witnessing it all. If I had not decided to wake so early it would all have carried on without me. But I became a part of it. A whole different soundscape.
Did I add anything to the event? On the face of it, no. But then I thought. ‘I must have’. Just being there changed it into something greater than it was. Each one of us is a centre of action, motion. Even when we think we are inactive, something is happening. We are an important, vital player, like members of a huge orchestra of life and as such we each have a unique and constructive role to play. Just like an orchestra, which is composed of players of different instruments, we are in our own spot for a very important reason. However, if we were to extract an individual instrument from the overall and finished piece and tried to understand it, it wouldn’t make much sense. It would sound no more than some discordant notes. An irregular drumbeat, the grating sound of cymbals clashing, the screech of a string instrument. On their own they seem to have no place, but when they are working together, in the correct order and at the correct time, they can produce something of sheer splendour and beauty. An instrument may have, what seems to be, a very small part to play but without it the piece is not whole.
But can the individual players hear anything other than their own particular contribution? Perhaps not at first, as so much concentration is needed to play their own piece. However, with awareness, practice and an understanding of the importance of their own role, a type magic is created.
So maybe we need to try and understand the importance of our own role in Life’s orchestra. Living a life of being aware that however small we think our actions to be, we are adding to something much greater. Why not start to practice our role. Paying attention to timing, listening for the right place to come in, listening to others and appreciating their roles. Attending to what presents itself to us. Adding to the symphony that is Life.
Like musicians, there will be times when we get it wrong. We’ll get frustrated. We’ll feel that we just can’t do it. But be assured that there is always another opportunity and that the end is good. With renewed energy, and a willingness to make it work, the desired result can be achieved. The wonderful sound of the finished piece is the result of the individual units doing the best they can and creating a harmony. If we sit and wait for the conductor to enter the arena, with no prior work from ourselves, we will sit, looking wide mouthed at the conductors actions, and wonder why it doesn’t work, and all that we produce will be no more than noise.
Let us try to do what we can, to the best of our abilities and with an awareness of the goal. Maybe we could keep in mind the hint from William Q. Judge that we do not need, all the time, to go and ‘to do, to do, to do’. That time of outwardly ‘doing’ will come when we have understood what our role is. Till then we need to attend to our own seemingly small duties and understand that all will be well.
Win Mitton 16/5/1913 – 18/2/2010
Earlier this year we bid farewell to a life long friend of Theosophy. Win Mitton was a stalwart of the London Branch who passed away peacefully in February to a well earned rest, and in preparation to once again carry on her soul’s desire at a time in the future. We should not forget the gratitude that we today have towards those that have gone before us. It was they that took up and carried the torch to illuminate the way for others to follow. We will do the same in turn. For many years Win attended and contributed enormously to London meetings, of which she was President and, when able, visited other groups. Those who met her will not forget the energy and warmth that shone from her. Surrounded by a loving family she entered her sleep. From a message read at her Service, comes this by her favourite author, G. de Purucker, from his book ‘Golden Precepts’. “Death comes to our old ones in peace and quiet, stealing like an angel of mercy into their being, releasing the bonds binding the soul to its vehicle flesh; and the passage is as quiet and gentle as the coming of the twilight preceding night; it is a blessed sleep”.
We wish you well Win and thank you for your sterling commitment.
Unveil, O Thou who givest sustenance to the Universe, from whom all proceed, to whom all must return, that face of the True Sun now hidden by a vase of golden light, that we may see the truth and do our whole duty on our journey to thy sacred seat.
– The Gayatri
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Thanks Renée, for everything, and also to Richard who, in his typically unassuming way, contributed so much.
From us all.
“Everything you can imagine is real”
– Pablo Picasso
Pat & Sandy Powell
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