Who are we responsible to and for? That’s been a question I’ve explored on this blog, which looks at the Biblical jubilee principles — forgiveness of debt, restitution, letting things lie fallow, and bearing one another’s burdens.
With that question in mind, I commend to you an excellent article in the May, 2010 issue of GQ (yes, Gentleman’s Quarterly). Michael Paterniti wrote it, and it’s staggeringly beautiful and very important. Please read it. Even though it’s not online. Go find it. Jake Gyllenhaal is on the cover.
It’s about a man who is a gruff, self-appointed angel who attempts to prevent suicides on a four-mile-long bridge over the Yangtze River in Nanjing, China. Apparently one-fifth of the world’s suicides are in China, about 200,000 per year. And Mr. Chen, who keeps statistics on a blog and whom Paterniti visited for this story, has saved 174 people.
Paterniti describes Nanjing, a city of 6 million, thus: “Daytime temperatures regularly topped ninety degrees here — due to hot air being trapped by the mountains at the lower end of the Yangtze River valley… and, oh yeah, because all the trees had been chopped down — and the sun rarely shone. Meanwhile, the city continued to explode in the noonday of the country’s hungry expansion. The past was being abandoned at an astonishing rate, the new skyscrapers and apartment buildings replacing the old neighborhoods. Everything — and everyone — was disposable. Schisms formed. The bridge loomed. Loss led to despair, which, in turn, led to Mr. Chen.”
And Paterniti described the community of those saved by Mr. Chen: “Of those he saved, some small number met near the bridge every year around Christmas to celebrate their new lives and ostensibly to offer their thanks. As part of the ceremony, they calculated their new ages from the date of their salvation. In this born-again world, no one was older than 6.”
And giving voice to Chen’s reasons for taking on the task of binocular-toting persuasion and suicide prevention, Paterniti writes, “The reason Mr. Chen was in the business of saving lives now was that, as a boy, he’d always gone unanswered. There is a saying in Chinese he used, that he never possessed ‘mother’s shoes.'”
He writes further, “It was from the incompleteness of his own family that he’d built this not-so-secret life as the defender of broken humanity.”
This, people, is a beautiful article. I’ve only given you a taste. Go find it. It’s long, nuanced, important.
GQ has a lot more than cleavage. I enjoy it immensely. Don’t miss this article.