“Oh God, please, not another learning experience!” That sentiment circulates so often around the Internet in various contexts, and it usually makes me smile when I see it, but trite as it is, obviously there is also some truth to it.
Last October I learned that one does not simply take a bus to the hospital with a broken elbow without saying anything to anyone. Two weeks ago I learned that it is not an overreaction to call an ambulance in the case of a bleeding head injury with a brief period of unconsciousness, that it is not a brilliant idea to just sit there bleeding for two hours waiting for the neighbors to wake up, so as not to disturb anyone, and that all my neighbors can cope with seeing an ambulance stop in front of the house in the early hours of the morning without going into shock or hysterics.
Why is it necessary to learn these things? And why is it necessary to learn them from the “receiving end”? If my neighbor needed help, if she were injured or if the baby were sick, would I want her to just sit there waiting for the cats to wake me up? That is not even a real question: at any time, day or night, I would be upstairs just as fast as she came downstairs, once I finally managed to send her a text message that I needed help.
Need help: why is that so hard to say?
A week before that, I had had a conversation with someone one evening about rock climbing. At some point he had posted pictures on Facebook of himself climbing, which showed up unexpectedly when I was looking for something else, and the pictures somehow seemed so close, so disturbing, that I immediately closed Facebook again. I was annoyed with myself then, because I don’t like feeling timid or maudlin like that, so I asked him to tell me about it – as an “outsider”, someone who never met Peter and didn’t know how he died, is not acquainted with anyone from my household, and only met me as a minor participant in a local project. No context, no assumptions or projections about how I might feel about rock climbing, which is simply a popular sport that lots of people enjoy. It was a good conversation that evening, and at some point we reached the usual conclusion that life itself is fundamentally dangerous and anything can happen anywhere at any time.
That is, of course, also a trite cliché, and I would not have imagined it might be necessary to demonstrate to myself that there is, nevertheless, also some truth to it. A week later, I got up briefly, half asleep, at about three in the morning, and on my way back to bed, I somehow tripped and crashed head-first into the closet in the front hall (as the details are a bit hazy now, I hate to blame Hester, but I think our paths must have crossed as she went dashing back to see why I hadn’t gone straight to the kitchen to feed her her breakfast, which is what she immediately and enthusiastically expects as soon as I put on my glasses to get out of bed). At some point, presumably not long after that, I realized that I was not actually back in bed, but still lying on the floor in the hall, and with some effort I managed to convince myself that it would not be a good idea to just go back to sleep on the floor. Once I got myself back into bed, of course, I was wide awake, bleeding all over the place from a deep cut above my eyebrow, and feeling incredibly stupid and annoyed with myself. And I had no idea what to do about it, except that I really, really didn’t want to bother anyone.
Life itself is fundamentally dangerous and anything can happen anywhere at any time.
Eventually, I had to abandon not wanting to bother anyone. I resigned myself to sitting quietly in a comfortable wheelchair, as I was carried out of the house, transported to the hospital, moved around from one examination room to another, and finally put into a well designed hospital bed in a thoughtfully furnished hospital room. I was grateful to be there: grateful to be able to just stop trying to make any more effort to pretend to be in control, grateful to be able to entrust myself to the kind care of knowledgeable, experienced people. At the same time, though, I still felt acutely aware of how privileged I am to live in Austria, where I am still protected by a still functioning social safety net. This should not be a privilege. It should be the norm everywhere for everyone, because sometimes rock climbers fall off mountains, sometimes old women living alone with their cats fall and injure themselves, sometimes people experience violence in their homes, sometimes people have to flee from hunger, persecution, war … and in the end, we all have the same needs in common:
People in pain need to be given shelter and care so they can rest.
People in distress need to be able to trust others to sympathize and care for them.
People who need help need to be helped – without shame, guilt or embarrassment, but in keeping with human dignity.
Not just some people, who happen to have been born into the “right” circumstances in the “right” place at the “right” time, but all people everywhere, because life itself is fundamentally dangerous and anything can happen anywhere at any time, and anyone and everyone may need help at some point for any reason.
How hard can that be to learn?