On Thursday I saw a man fall from a building. Or rather I heard him land, just catching sight of it in my peripheral vision. There was no blood but hus body lay there totally still, facing the ground, his head resting on a slight curb. One shoe had come off and was lying on the ground. The body didn’t look mis-shapen or broken but it didn’t look right. It looked lifeless.
This all happened about 10 meters away from me, just on the other side of a street crossing. The people immediately nearby seemed not to have realized what had happened for a brief moment. Then somebody started shouting to call an ambulance.
By chance a small fire-service van happened to be passing by. I don’t quite know how, because it was still just around the corner and out of sight of the immediate incident, but one of the observers realised and rushed to tell them what had happened. They drove literally 5 metres to the street corner and pulled up. It took them a few seconds to get the life support equipment and stretcher together before they rushed to do what they could to help.
They felt for a pulse and their response didn’t look hopeful. Together they turned the body over and then one immediately began CPR. The other checked the body. He felt around the man’s hips, as if to check if his pelvis was still intact, or more likely confirm that it wasn’t. One of the fire staff looked up at the building and counted out the floors with his finger – 8 storeys. They hooked him up to a life support machine and continued to pump his chest. You could hear the machine beeping in tandem with pressure of the CPR.
After a couple of minutes another larger emergency vehicle arrived, it’s sirens wailing. A third emergency worker rushed out and together the three strapped the man into a stretcher. As they lifted him, they had to stop pumping his chest momentarily and the beeping tone from the life support machine flatlined. Once on the stretcher, the CPR, and the beeping, began again and they carried him over to the ambulance.
One of the observers picked up the missing shoe and ran it over to the ambulance. He handed it to the medics and then continued talking with them, eventually writing down his details. During this time I presume that the effort to save the victim’s life was continuing in the back of the emergency vehicle.
Throughout all of this I felt compelled to stay and watch. It took a few seconds for my brain to register what had happened – it just seemed so unlikely – but once it had I was struck by a very physical feeling of shock. My eyes widened, my body kicked into alertness and I remember talking to myself: ‘oh my god, oh my god, what the fuck’.
Just by having witnessed what had happened I felt involved, not just as an observer but viscerally, as part of the tragedy unfolding in front of me. It was only when the ambulance left that I felt able to continue on my journey home – although even now I still feel affected by what I saw and felt then.
That same night, my train home was delayed and sat in the station for 40 minutes before setting off. This is a rare event in Tokyo and when it does happen it is often due to somebody jumping on the tracks, an occurrence that anybody from London is also familiar with from travelling on the Tube. Of course, every time this happens it is a tragedy but our usual response is to shrug it off or even to get annoyed with the inconvenience.
There are many details about what I saw that remain a mystery. Who was this man? Did he fall or did he jump? Did he have a family? Did he survive? I’m unlikely to ever know the answer to these questions. Even so, just by being there, I feel somehow personally involved.
This was a real person, whose life had likely ended and I had somehow shared in his last moments. That night the thought of what I had seen kept popping into my mind. Not so much the image of the man lying there but the sense that this person, this life and all that that entails, had probably ceased to be. Although this guy had never been a part of my life, in a strange way I can feel his absence.
By being there, his loss has become a part of me and that feeling has affected me more profoundly than just knowing about any number of similar accidents.
As our experience of the world becomes increasingly mediated by screens and reproductions of reality, we need to hang onto this idea that there is something very different about the physicality of real experience. It engages us more fully and affects us more deeply, involving our whole being and yielding a qualitatively different experience. At the extreme, it is the difference between knowing and feeling something.
There is something intangible about feelings. They’re difficult to quantify, unlike knowledge. However, it is feelings that are at the root of empathy and of really understanding the world and what it means to be human.