"An Individual has not started living fully until they can rise above the narrow confines of individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of humanity. Every person must decide at some point, whether they will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment: 'Life's most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?'"
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
For many the road to better health has begun as they follow through on their New Year’s resolutions. This means gyms are busy and full of people as was the case several days ago at the Manhattan, New York gym where my husband, André, works out. He started his usual routine on what was a rather uneventful afternoon but the tides would soon turn and he would leave the gym having been forever impacted by the events that unfolded.
While lifting weights in front of the gym’s large wall mirror, he saw the reflection of a man behind him fall backwards off of the shoulder press machine. The man lay on the gym floor, void of any movement. André dropped his dumbbells and ran over, kneeling down beside his fellow gym member. Initially, there were faint answers to his questions. Then there was silence. He felt for the man’s pulse. There was none. André began performing CPR while screaming out for someone to call 911. Because during these crucial seconds leading into minutes (and what seemed like eternity) NO ONE else in the gym had stopped to ask what was happening and/or assist.
His screams were answered by one employee running over to them, another running over to grab the defibrillator machine, and yet another running over to the desk to dial 911. And still, none of the other gym members paused in their routines to walk over and help. They say fact is stranger than fiction, that sometimes we can feel as if we are living in The Twilight Zone. I imagine maybe this is how André and the employees felt in those moments, leaning over a man who may or may not live while those in the world around him continued on as if this were simply part of a routine workout day.
The man started and stopped breathing again twice before the paramedics arrived. André doesn’t know if he lived or not. With a trembling voice on the other end of the phone, he relived the experience of being in the Capital of the World (as Manhattan is sometimes called) in one of the busiest places at one of the busiest times and feeling so completely alone. Alone and in a state of disbelief and despair that even as far as we have come as a people and a nation, we haven’t come nearly far enough. “My heart broke. I couldn’t believe that people didn’t stop to help. I don’t know if he made it but I hope he did. I hope he lived.”
The employee who had retrieved the defibrillator machine repeatedly thanked André through her falling tears for what he did. He didn’t tell me this but I know (because of how well I know him) that this probably made him a bit uncomfortable. As far as he was concerned, his actions were by no means heroic but a consequence of his upbringing by a grandmother who gave much though she had very little. They are a consequence of his time spent serving our country as a Marine and knowing the value of lives both saved and lost. Perhaps they are even a product of subconsciously living in the words of a song he has heard thousands of times over the years, The Circle of Life: “it moves us all, through despair and hope, through faith and love, ‘til we find our place on the path unwinding...”
Though I’d wished just earlier in the day for André to be home with me, his place on our life’s path unwinding was to be in that gym, at those precise moments, to work desperately with hope in the midst of despair and lean into a faith and love whose end results may never be known.
If you grew discouraged while reading, don’t be. As we celebrate the work and life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend we are reminded that even as much as there might be darkness, so there is also much light. We simply must decide, at any given point, whether we will set aside our own life-sustaining agenda to resuscitate the life of another. We must never stop asking questions, especially of ourselves. And we must strive to not only rise above our own personal concerns for a life fully lived but understand, and maybe one day accept, that our concern for humanity must outweigh our concern for self.