The Man on the Bridge

I was driving across the mighty Susquehanna River near my home when I saw him. Dangling his legs over the low wall of the bridge, he gazed peacefully down at the half-frozen river.

Concentrating on the heavy traffic of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I had whipped by and was climbing the hill on the other side before the truth hit me. What if he wasn’t peacefully gazing down at the river? What if he was considering jumping? Someone should do something!

There was nothing I could do though. There was no place to pull over on this highway, and I was alone. I’d never know what happened. I’d never know the end of the story.

Then I passed a sign: “If you see an emergency, call*11.” I thought, “Oh, good. Someone will call in. One of these truck drivers will call, and someone will check on him. I can’t – I’m already late, and anyway, there’s no place to pull over.”

Another mile of trees and fields slid by, but I didn’t see them. I was wrestling with myself. Was it a life-or-death emergency or was he only being peaceful, even if it was illegal to sit on the bridge? I didn’t want to overreact. And I’d never made an emergency call before. Was it necessary? Did I really need to get involved? Besides, lots of people had probably called that emergency number by now. But I kept on seeing him sitting on the edge of the bridge.

One of my favorite discernment questions has always been “Is this truly mine to do?” When I asked myself the question now, all I heard was an unhelpful “maybe.” Thanks! Finally, after another mile or so, I admitted to myself that I would always regret it if I didn’t call.

I pulled to the side of the road next to a No Parking sign, and I dialed the number. When I reported what I had seen, I was thanked, and I learned that only one other person had called to report the man on the bridge.

With a sense of relief, I left my illegal parking spot and continued on. Had I really needed to make the call? No, someone had already done so. But only one person of the hundreds who witnessed the man had called in. Apparently everyone else thought like I did: Someone else would do it.

Had I needed to make that call? Yes, I did. I want to be someone who cares enough to get involved. I don’t want to be an indifferent bystander. Even when I am unclear about the need, there may be something that is mine to do. I know how I would have felt if I hadn’t called, and then read in the newspaper the next day: Man Jumps to his Death from Bridge!

In Jesus’ famous story of the man who lay at the side of the road, ignored by many people until a Samaritan rescued him, the need was clear. The man needed help, and the Samaritan gave it, even to the point of paying for his treatment.

I didn’t know what the man on the bridge needed, and I surely wasn’t called to take him anywhere. But I believe that the key to Jesus’ story lies in the question that spurred the story: Who is my neighbor? That’s what I was wrestling with.

Had I recognized the man on the bridge as someone I knew, I would not have hesitated to pull over and call the emergency number. But this man was not a neighbor. He was a nameless unknown. I needed to expand my neighborhood list, to draw a bigger circle that drew him in.

When I see the unknown one as my neighbor, or my brother or sister, it is harder to “pass by on the other side.” Even if I am uncertain about the need, I can still risk the rejection and offer help. When my eyes are opened to truly see another person, my heart opens, too, and I realize again that there are no strangers. There are only neighbors; there is only family.

And Jesus said, “Which do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37)

If this reflection has spoken to you, please share it with another.

14 thoughts on “The Man on the Bridge”

    1. Yes, I’m glad I called, too! God’s nudges aren’t always clear—or maybe we’re not attending to them carefully, giving our whole selves to listening. We can always grow more attentive I believe. Thank you, my friend.

  1. Thank you, Nancy. It is indeed easy to hope “someone else will take care of it” and then be haunted if they did.

    1. Yes, Rhonda. Knowing when it is ‘ours to do’ is the challenge. And I’m very glad I made that phone call!

    1. Thank you, Scott. I think it is lessons/learnings like this that stretch us so we can be more attentive to “God’s nudges” next time.

  2. Thank you Nancy for this post that is inspiring me to consider who really is my neighbor. I also appreciate your emphasis on discerning and acting on Spirit nudges. Thank you for the poignant photo at the end of your post. Naomi

    1. I’m glad you wrote. Considering who really is a neighbor is always the invitation as we respond to others in the world—especially when it would be easy to dismiss the ‘other’. May we continue to enlarge our communities. Nancy

  3. For me recognizing who is my neighbor is expanding through the encouragement of a loving community ever opening its circle to include more would-be strangers who I get to see as my friends and being inspired to reach out to those in my path whom I don’t know, if only to smile and say hello.

    1. Thank you, Anne. I agree that having a community around me who see others as a widening circle of neighbors helps me. And it’s good to remember that treating the unknown others as neighbors can be as simple as a smile or ‘hello’ as one passes them. Nancy

  4. It’s so easy to rationalize that surely others will see a possible problem and take action…and of course we don’t want to flood the authorities with phone calls, etc. But as humans, most of us tend to use these same excuses rather than getting involved. Perhaps if each one of us decides to take the the more difficult route, we can reset our human default mode to one of compassion rather than one of rationalization. I’m glad you got the ball rolling, Nancy!

    1. Laurie, I appreciate your insight on this story: to set our human default mode to one of compassion rather than one of rationalization. May we all be moved by compassion so that our neighborhood circles are expanded, and we do reach out. Thank you for writing. Nancy

    1. Thank you, Sally. I am glad this story spoke to you. I hope the story continues moving out and touch people and the circle of neighbors continues to expand. Nancy

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