His name is Mr. Chen.
I would never know of him if it weren’t for the article in GQ, a nine page account of despair and hopelessness that, when finished, convinced me of this one irrevocable fact—Mr. Chen is an overweight, black-toothed, chain-smoking, borderline alcoholic. And he is also my hero.
Most days you will find him on the South Tower of the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing, China. A big bridge, that one. One hundred and thirty feet high and four miles long, with a four-lane highway on the top deck and two railroad tracks on the bottom. Five hundred thousand tons of cement and a million tons of steel.
He stands guard there, sometimes up to six hours a day, armed with a pair of binoculars and a moped. What Mr. Chen does isn’t his job. That’s reserved for the transportation company in the city proper. I suppose it couldn’t be considered a hobby either, given the seriousness of what he does there. Consider it his calling, I suppose. A holy one.
Because every day, every day, at least one of the citizens of Nanjing comes to the bridge for one purpose: to jump. And Mr. Chen is there to stop them.
It began some years ago when he read an article in the newspaper about the suicides on the bridge. Mr. Chen took up his post at the South Tower soon thereafter. Since then, he has pulled 174 people from taking the leap into the river or onto the concrete below.
There are others he cannot reach in time.
“…middle-aged man jumped off bridge where the body fell to the flower bed,” says one of his blog entries. “…died on the spot.” “Speaking in northern accent, man gave me a cigarette, said: Alas! Wives and children…” “Next to statue at southwest fort, man died jumping to concrete, one leg thrown from body, only blackened blood left behind. Meaningless life!”
Day after day this man stands guard, peering through the smog with his binoculars, looking for someone who lingers just a bit too long at the bridge’s edge. He will calmly speak with some, offer a cigarette to others, and some, he says, respond only when he hits them. Whatever it takes to get them off the bridge.
Mr. Chen scoffs at the idea that he’s a guardian angel. He’s no angel, he says. Yet for those who live in a city full of emptiness and empty of hope, that’s exactly what he is.
I read that article and wondered of that emptiness. I remembered the kind I felt once upon a time. The sort that now at a distance seems small but then certainly seemed jump-worthy.
And I wondered this, too:
The emptiness Mr. Chen fights is the same emptiness that lies not just in me, but in everyone.
The question isn’t whether we have holes.
The question is what we do with them.
Mr. Chen came from a broken home. An empty one. He says it’s that brokenness that keeps him on that bridge day after day. I wonder if he’d be there if his childhood had been full. Somehow I don’t think so.
That’s what I want to say to you today. Yes, you. Because I can’t take a peek into your life, can’t see what you see or feel what you feel, but I know you need the reminder. Your troubles and worries may lead you to believe you’re meant for the river or the concrete, but you’re not.
You’re meant to be a Mr. Chen.
You’re meant to heal your wounds by bandaging the wounds of others, to pull others from the brink while knowing you could well be there yourself.
Like him, you’re not perfect. That’s good. You’re not supposed to be.
Because I think only the broken can help the broken.
This post is part of the One Word at a Time blog carnival: Emptiness. For more stories about empiness, please visit my friend Bridget Chumbley at One Word at a Time.