Last fall, I landed in the ditch. I’d been up north in ski country visiting a friend who had come from England to spend some time with her ailing mother. We weren’t expecting snow, certainly not in mid November. The trees hadn’t even shed all their leaves. I’d driven up the evening before and planned on returning to the city early the next day. Come morning, several inches of snow had fallen and the barren ski trails had transformed into white ribbons weaving their way down the mountain. The snow was beautiful to look at but treacherous to drive in, as I soon found out.
By the time I left my friend’s chalet, the light snowfall had become a blizzard and the unplowed roads were like frozen rivers. My all-season tires were more like no-season tires and when I put my foot on the brakes at an intersection, my car glided ahead with no intention of stopping. I had two options: crash into the car in front of me or veer to the right, plunge into the ditch, and hit a tree. I chose the latter.
I got out of the car to inspect. Fortunately, the impact against the tree had been cushioned by branches and the damage was minimal. But I was in deep and the only way out was a tow truck. Why hadn’t I joined CAA? Who to call, where to begin? I envisioned waiting hours for relief and I winced at the thought of the expense. The snow continued its assault on the roads and on my uncovered head; I shivered under my flimsy jacket.
That’s when he appeared. Like a ghost out of the mist, a large burly man approached me and jumped into the ditch. He kicked my front tire. “No treads,” he said. Then he beckoned to a pick-up truck parked at the roadside. Two men, no less brawny, emerged.
“Get in the car and put her in reverse,” the guy told me. “When I say go, slowly press on the gas.” Flustered, I followed his instructions and before I knew it, the car was back on the road. The three men had literally lifted the vehicle out of the ditch. I tried to thank them, but sooner than the words had left my mouth, the men were in the truck and on their way. I shouted “thank you” through the dense snow and waved at the flickering taillights quickly disappearing from view. My heart pounded as I reflected on what had just happened. It was if three burly angels had come from heaven and scooped me out of the ditch.
The ditch is a rotten place to be. We feel helpless and vulnerable in there. But everyone ends up in the ditch at one time or another. We can’t avoid it. Sometimes we tumble in, sometimes we get pushed in and sometimes we crash in—head first!
We are in and out of the ditch all of our lives. Each of us, no matter who we are, how much money we have, or where we live, has our moments, our days, our months, and even our years in the ditch. It stinks in there. It really does. It’s muddy and grimy and dusty and dark and lonely. Trapped in the mire we can feel anger, shame, and unspeakable pain. How do we end up in such a wretched place?
When somebody we care for becomes ill or dies.
When our own health is compromised.
When a significant relationship ends.
When we lose our job, our money, our security.
When we see our children suffer.
When we do something bad, or make a terrible mistake.
When we are victims of oppression or violence.
And if we suffer from mental illness, we are in the ditch—a lot.
The problem is...the challenge is...the question is...how do we get out? Sometimes, we feel like there is no way out. Sometimes we want a bulldozer to come along and fill in the crevices with earth, so we don’t have to keep clawing our way to the surface. We may ask ourselves, “Who cares anyway? Would I even be missed?” Despite the bleakness, we can see the sky—and occasionally a glimmer of sunshine. But how then, do we reach it?
These days, with an unstable economy and gloom in the air, it may seem impossible. Many people, perhaps already teetering on the edge, are plunging hard. Did you know that Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the industrialized world? Nearly one hundred people take their lives every day—twice as many as in the U.S. More than 20% of Japanese men and women have admitted to contemplating suicide at one time or another. The number peaks when the country falls into a recession.
When they can’t cope any longer, when the future looks too morbid, many of these people go to Tojimbo Cliffs, where precipices rise about 82 feet above the Sea of Japan. It’s a breathtaking place with expansive rock formations and majestic views; a place that should be a peaceful refuge rather than a looming call to death. For some it offers a way out of the ditch, forever. But when they get there, they may come to find that there is another alternative.
A retired policeman called Yukio Shige often patrols the area, keeping an eye out for dejected faces. He approaches the sad looking souls and talks to them, and when he learns of their deep pain, he tries to reassure them. Most don’t really want to die, but they don’t know what else to do. Sometimes, just talking helps them realize that what they have in mind is not the answer. As part of a volunteer organization, whose mission it is to help those in pain, Yukio Shige lets people know that there is a community who cares.
Sometimes, such a hand is all one needs to get out of the ditch. That hand can belong to a stranger, a friend, a loved one, a care-giving professional, a community, or a force we cannot see. We all have stories about our time in the ditch, and as we think back, we can likely recall a hand reaching down and yanking us out.
Help can appear in the most unexpected ways, and it can pull the darkest hearts back onto safe, steady ground.
Regardless of why we land in the ditch, there is always someone, somewhere, somehow, who cares enough to offer that life-line. And when we emerge from the sludge with our hearts and our bodies and souls intact, hopefully we remember to take our turn patrolling, like our Japanese friend watching for burdened souls at Tojimbo Cliffs...and those angels in the pick-up truck who cared enough to help me on that snowy November day.