Don Ritchie, the Savior of the Suicidal, Died in May

“A conversation can change a life.” – Donald Ritchie

I know it’s odd to publish a post about someone’s death this belatedly, but I had no idea that this wonderful man had passed on, and I think he deserves a posthumous mention. Also known as the “Angel of the Gap,” this brave and compassionate Australian devoted more than half his life to saving people from attempting to end their lives by jumping off a cliff  near his home. News.com reports:

Mr Ritchie spent 50 years coaxing desperate people back from The Gap, the notorious cliff at Watsons Bay where hundreds have died or thought about taking their lives.

He helped save 500 despairing souls – usually with little more than compassion, a warm smile and a hot cuppa.

“Those who knew him knew he was a very strong person and a very capable person,” Mr Ritchie’s daughter Sue said today.

Federal MP Malcolm Turnbull, whose electorate includes The Gap, added: “A true hero, one of our greatest Australians. RIP.”

Born in Vaucluse in 1926, Mr Ritchie died peacefully at home on Old South Head Road, Watsons Bay yesterday.

The former navy seaman turned life insurance salesman was never one to shout about his exploits.

He helped because he could.

Ms Ritchie said: “It was just something that he saw and that he had to do something about.”

New South Wales Mental Health Minister Kevin Humphries recalled when Mr Ritchie was named a Local Hero in the 2011 Australian of the Year Awards.

“Upon accepting the award Mr Ritchie urged people to never be afraid to speak to those most in need,” he said.

“Always remember the power of the simple smile, a helping hand, a listening ear and a kind word.”

A funeral will be held in Sydney on Friday.

Mr Ritchie’s family asked for donations to be made to the Black Dog Institute or to Lifeline.

As humble and simple as he was altruistic. The Global Post offered a more detailed account of his exploits, though it’s unfortunate that so few major media outlets mentioned him much before or after he died.

In his earlier years, Ritchie would physically restrain people from jumping off the cliff while his wife called the police, UPI reported. However, as he got older, he would simply offer distraught people at the edge of the Gap a cup of tea and someone to talk to.

Father Tony Doherty from Rose Bay Parish and a good friend of Ritchie’s told ABC News about the first time he saw Don literally talk someone off the ledge.

“I watched this figure gradually encourage [a man] to come back to the safety of the cliff,” said Father Doherty. “He has this wonderful soft, appealing voice that encouraged this little fellow not to jump.”

Ritchie won numerous community awards and a Medal of the Order of Australia for his efforts, and was named an Australian local hero of the year in 2011, according to the Telegraph. He also received gifts, Christmas cards, and letters from those he saved, sometimes a decade or two later, the Telegraph reported.

“Those who knew him knew he was a very strong person and a very capable person,” Ritchie’s daughter Sue told AAP News on Monday. “It was just something that he saw and that he had to do something about.”

However, Ritchie was not always successful in his attempts to stop suicides, according to the Telegraph. He saw several people jump, including one instance where he spoke to a quiet young man who “just kept looking straight ahead,”  Ritchie told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2009.

“I was talking to him for about half an hour thinking I was making headway,” said Ritchie. “I said ‘why don’t you come over for a cup of tea, or a beer, if you’d like one?’ He said ‘no’ and stepped straight off the side his hat blew up and I caught it in my hand.”

Whether he saved 160 people or 500 doesn’t matter – even saving a single human life is incalculably valuable. Mr. Ritchie has left behind quite a legacy: imagine having over a hundred people go on with their lives because you did nothing more than offer them an ear.

Not only is a wonderful example of the best aspects of humanity, but he offers an important lesson about what it takes to help another human being. All any of us want as humans, whether we’re suicidal or not, is someone to talk to and care. A small show of kindness or a simple offer to hear someone out could literally be all it takes. As Mr. Ritchie was found of saying, “a conversation could change a life.”

Indeed, he changed far more than many of course ever hope to. I hope more people take his lesson to heart. Think of all the lives we could improve or even save.

(To be clear, I’m not making light of suicidal and other morbid mental illnesses; obviously, certain individuals may require far more than human empathy to get better, as even Ritchie learned to his dismay. But the point is to at least make the effort. Taking a few minutes to check up on someone, be they friend or stranger, costs nothing but potentially save the most precious thing at all).

Finally, the Sydney Morning Herald also published an article that includes an interview with the charismatic but down-to-Earth Ritchie, whose sincerity and approachability makes it no mystery that he could coax people from the brink. As much as I’m tempted to mourn his death, I can’t help but feel happy that he lived such a full and accomplished life. I’m further consoled by the fact that there are many other low-key heroes just like him (including a very similar case in Japan).

 

The Ties That Bind

In my lifetime, there have been few experiences as pleasant and gratifying as the moment when strangers become acquaintances or friends. Unlike for most of human history, we now live in a world where we come into constant contact with unfamiliar human beings. In our lifetimes, we interact with tens of thousands of different people a year – if not more – whereas most humans who have ever lived rarely knew of anyone else’s existence outside of their tiny and insular community.

The internet has radically amplified this trend, granting us the unprecedented ability to contact people from across the world. The once imposing scale of time and distance are being increasingly eroded. I can now establish a companionship with people who I have never physically met, and I would have otherwise never known these individuals existed had it not been for the web.

I love meeting new people and establishing new bonds. I love the feeling of connecting with a person on a deeper level, whether it’s through a shared interest or activity, or by empathizing with a more personal experience or feeling. It makes me feel less lonely, and opens me up to experiences, ideas, and perspectives I would otherwise have never known.

We often go about our daily routine without ever thinking much about the people who surround us, who are engaging in the same day-to-day activities as we are. Who are those individuals waiting in line with me? Or those people driving by in all those cars? Where are they going and why? What are their dreams and ambitions? What are there story?

Indeed, it’s hard to realize that as we go about our lives, billions of other individuals just like us are doing the same. They all have a story that they’re living out. They all have fears, desires, ideas, and experiences. The majority of them wants and need companionship too. They need that bond with other humans, whether it’s a friendly associate or an intimate lover. We all need someone in some way.

Going to any social setting – a party or classroom or department store – I always feel that latent sense of interconnection that pervades all collective gatherings; that palpable sense that any moment, I can create a bond with someone by recognizing their mutual humanity and engaging in conversation. It won’t always work of course, but the fact that it can is what excites me. The fact that I can tough another person’s life in some way, or visa versa, is what makes life great. Any stranger has the potential to be my next confidant. Any one of them has the potential to change my life.

These interactions could be brief or shallow, but that doesn’t diminish their value to me. Human interaction in general is the spice of life. It makes things more interesting. It enriches our worldview and our experiences. Most importantly, such contacts forge the ties that bind – the knowledge that we all share this world, that we’re all individual human beings who are capable of the same basic feelings and thoughts. This realization is that makes me a humanist, and what has driven me to care deeply about others I otherwise should have no reason to concern myself with.

I advise others to never pass up the chance to establish some sort of connection with another person – the store cashier, the person stuck in line with you, friend of a friend you meet at a party; make an opportunity to say something nice, to find some sort of icebreaker, or to simply smile and express your mutual interest in their humanity. In this fast-paced and materialistic world, it is easy to go about our lives without taking the moment to stop and just enjoy the company of strangers. Arguably, there is no such thing as strangers – they’re all prospective or future companions.

Reflections on My Public Allies Retreat

For those of you who don’t know, I recently had the honor and privilege of being hired by Public Allies, an AmeriCorp program that engages us in civic participation and community service. I just returned from a wonderful retreat in beautiful Key Largo, where I got to learn more about my new job, it’s mission statement, and the dozens of great people I’ll be working with. Most importantly, I got to discover more about myself too: my goals, fears, professional objectives, leadership style, and dreams. It certainly helped that I often did this through fun activities, an open-minded atmosphere of inquiry and input, and the beautiful surroundings of a natural island resort. I know of very few jobs that give their newly-hired employees this sort of constructive and engaging introduction. It solidified my excitement even more, especially since we’ll be revisiting these exercises several times throughout the year.

Though I, like most of us, constantly reflect on these personal developments and concerns anyway, it was very helpful to do so in a structured way, alongside 23 other like-minded people that you can connect and relate with. It really got me thinking about what I want to do with myself and what I’ll have to do to get there. I want to be a better person: smarter, healthier, fitter, and harder working. I want to conquer my fears of failure, and my often paralyzing tendency for anxiety, paranoia, and self-doubt. I want to stop being impatient, arrogant, timid, and indecisive. Most of all, I want to do all this in order to reach my goal of being a productive member of society, giving back to the world and the community, be it as a diplomat, non-profit worker, or public official. Needless to say, the next ten months that I’ll be serving as an “ally” will definitely be among the most formative and constructive in my life.

What stuck with me most was the overall theme of the retreat: getting young, compassionate people like us to be more involved in political and social issues. Apathy, lack of civic engagement, and insularity are becoming increasingly common in our society, even as socioeconomic and political conditions are requiring more action then ever. Indeed, most people aren’t even aware of the depth and details of these issues, let alone getting to the part of actually acting on such knowledge. How many of us know who our local officials and state and national representatives are? How often do any of us look up the laws and policies that are being proposed or debated, or contact our politicians?

Those who know me personally, or have been reading my posts for longer, are no doubt aware of how much this issue means to me. There are so many problems just in our local communities  – let alone our state, nation, and world – and we’re pedaling backwards towards less awareness, less action, and less cooperation. It’s bad enough facing such overwhelmingly cynical odds without having such counter-productive attitudes.

Admittedly, the task is certainly daunting, and as I have confessed to experiencing, it’s easy to lose hope and not bother. We all know full well the challenges of affecting political change: the venality of politicians; the polarization of stronger factions of society, and those who they elect;  the increasingly oligarchic nature of our system, with it’s perverse corporate and special interest influence. The sense of cynicism an detachment seems to be the prevailing attitude of a lot of people in this country, and I frankly can’t blame a lot folks for it. But it’s  far worse to see this take hold of  younger people so quickly and easily; we  have far more energy and potential to work with, and it’s being squandered. On top of that, we’re the ones who will soon inherit this nation and it’s problems, whether we like it or not. Either we act now, or we face the consequences of our political absence later.

Again, all this is easier said than done. But I’m not proclaiming that we do anything drastic. At the very least, we can start working on the lowest level: our local communities. All my talk about this country and the world makes me feel as if I haven’t given as much credit or attention to the immediate society that surrounds me. Miami-Dade Country, where I’ve lived all my life, has one of the most daunting problems of any local community: a large wealth disparity that is only getting wider; a high poverty rate; high incidences of social ills, such as crime, delinquency, and high-school drop outs;  and high rates of political corruption and incompetence, coupled with one of the least involved and least informed constituencies in the nation.

In fact, Public Allies in Miami has strengthened more than most other branches precisely because of how much there is to do. Miami is a beautiful place full of raw talent, culture, and potential. There is so much that we need to tap into. The task is intimidating, but not hopeless, and at the very least we could try rather than preemptively give up. I learned of so many inspiring stories, both from the non-profit veterans we spoke with, as well as from my socially conscious and active peers. There is a lot of cause for hope, and there’s no reason to aim too high or expect to accomplish drastic changes so quickly.

I’m not bashing ambition of course. What I mean to say is that we mustn’t be dissatisfied with only working in a “limited” scope or fashion. We don’t have to feel that changing the world is the only worthy objective to accomplish. Giving one person a new home, or just one family access to healthcare or education, is infinitely valuable. Giving one blighted low-income neighborhood a new lease on life, or one kid a chance to graduate from high school, can be just as inspiring and beneficial to society. Best of all, it can “pay it forward” and give other people a new and productive perspective on life, perhaps inspiring them to do the same.

In other words, there is value in any good deed and any form of participation in our society, community, and politics, from the most local of levels to the highest. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or ground-breaking. It just has to be.