Empathy vs. Boundaries

The other day, in advance of what was expected to be a catastrophic storm, I saw a woman standing on the sidewalk on the south end of my bridge. She was moaning quietly to herself, and rocking back and forth. I was coming back from doing some maintenance nearby, and was due to walk right past her.

This put me on the horns of a moral dilemma. Everyone should have been taking shelter at this point. And clearly this woman was in distress. But we have a history, this woman and I.

Due to the tragic underfunding of mental health services in this country in general, and in this state and city in particular, more and more mentally ill people roam our streets. And for some reason they often are attracted to our drawbridges. This woman is one of our regulars.

We call her the suitcase lady, because usually she has two large, unwieldy suitcases in tow. Oddly, this day they were not in evidence. But she was. And she scares me. She has cursed me like a sailor in the past, and lunged at me. I had strong reason to believe she wouldn’t welcome any offer of assistance from me.

So I walked on by, giving her the widest possible berth. And then I went into my warm, dry tower. And I watched her from the window as the rain continued to fall on her ragged raincoat.

What to do. Should I call 911? I’ve done it before. Several times. They have made it abundantly clear that such calls are not appreciated. She was not breaking any laws. And while she may pose a danger to herself, she is just one of the thousands who wander around Seattle, posing a danger “only” to themselves every day. Usually by the time the police get around to responding, the person in question has moved on. I suspect that’s intentional.

While I was contemplating my next move, a jogger came by and stopped to talk to the lady. They talked for quite some time. Then the jogger put her arm around the woman and they walked together off the bridge. I’ll probably never know what happened next. I hope it ended well for all concerned.

So which of us did the right thing? Me, or the jogger? I struggle with this on a daily basis. I can’t shake the feeling that perhaps both of us got it wrong. Surely there must be a point where compassion and self-protection can intersect in a healthy way. But how does one find that point?

I would love to be able to save the world, but it’s also important to set boundaries. I’m pretty much all I have these days. It would be foolish to put my life at risk. But I ache for the human condition. I feel helpless to hold back the tide. I want to make a difference. I just don’t want to die trying.

boundaries

A big thanks to StoryCorps for inspiring this blog and my first book. http://amzn.to/2cCHgUu

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