A man lying on the ground

On 1st July, at 13:05 hrs., there was a man aged about fifty lying on the promenade in Copacabana. I passed him with a glance and went on my way towards a stall where I always drink fresh coconut water.
Being from Rio, I’ve passed hundreds (thousands?) of men, women and children lying on the ground. As someone who travels, I’ve seen the same scene in practically all the countries I’ve been to – from Sweden to Romania. I’ve seen people lying in the street in all seasons of the year: in the biting winter of Madrid, New York or Paris, where they huddle around the warm air floating up from the subway stations. In the relentless sun of Lebanon, among buildings destroyed by years of war. People lying on the ground – drunks, homeless, tired – are not a novelty for anyone.
I drank my coconut water. I was in a hurry to get back for an interview with Juan Arias, from the Spanish newspaper El Paí­s. On the way, I saw the man was still there, in the sunshine – and everyone who passed acted in exactly the same way as I had: they looked, and walked on.
The fact is – not that I was aware of this – my soul was tired of seeing the same scene, over and over again. When I passed that man again, something great force made me kneel down and try to help him up.
He didn’t react. I turned his head, and there was blood near his temple. Now what? Was it a serious wound? I cleaned his face with my shirt: it didn’t look serious.
Just then, the man started mumbling something which sounded like: “tell them to stop beating me.” Well, at least he was alive; now all I had to do was get him out of the sun and call the police.
I stopped the first man passing and asked him to help me drag him to the shade between the promenade and the beach. He was wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase and parcels, but he put them down and came to help me – his soul must also have been tired of seeing that scene.
Having got the man into the shade, I walked towards my building, knowing there was a police post on the way, where I could get help. But before getting there, I passed two policemen.
– A man has been hurt over there opposite number such-and-such, I said. I put him on the sand. You should send for an ambulance.
The policemen said they’d make arrangements. Right, now I’d done my duty. A good scout, “Be Prepared”. Do a good turn daily! The problem was in the hands of others now, they were responsible. And the Spanish journalist would be arriving at my place in a few minutes.
I hadn’t gone ten paces when a foreign man stopped me. He spoke in broken Portuguese:
– I had already told the police about the man on the sidewalk. They said that as long as he wasn’t a thief, it was none of their business.
I didn’t let the man finish. I walked back to the policemen, certain that they knew who I was, someone who wrote in the newspapers and appeared on television. I returned with the false impression that success can, at times, help to resolve many things.
– Do you belong to some official authority? – one of them asked, noticing that I’d asked for help more urgently this time.
They had no idea who I was.
– No. But let’s solve this problem right now.
I was badly dressed, my shirt stained with the man’s blood, my shorts were made from an old pair of jeans I had torn up, and I was sweating. I was an ordinary, anonymous man, without any authority beyond that of having grown tired of seeing people lying on the ground, for dozens of years, without ever having done a single thing about it.
And that changed everything. There’s a moment when you go beyond any mental block or fear. A moment when your eyes look different, and people know you’re being serious. The policemen went with me and called an ambulance.

On the way home, I reflected on the three lessons from my walk.
a] everyone can stop an action and wash his/her hands, if he/she thinks that moving forward will cause some trouble.
b] but there’s always someone there to say: “now you’ve started, go all the way.”
And, finally:
c] everyone is an authority, when he is quite convinced of what he is doing.

Paulo Coelho


  1. G says:

    “Now you’ve started, go all the way.” This summed it up for me.

  2. Savita Vega says:

    “Everyone is an authority, when he is quite convinced of what he is doing.” This, in my experience, is so true. This story illustrates how, by being persistent and insistent, confident and determined, even a supposed “nobody” can make a difference, either by pushing the official authorities to act, or by taking matters into one’s own hands…or both.

    Over the past few years, in this rural community where I now reside, I have had several similar encounters with police officials who refused to do their duty with the excuse that they were either “too busy” with more important matters (i.e. fighting drug traffic) or that they had “no authority” to take the action required in a given situation. Mostly, as I have surmised, they simply don’t wish to be bothered with the issues that I bring to their attention – namely, cases of animal abuse and neglect.

    It isn’t that I drive around, “policing” the neighborhood, looking for such cases, but when I do see cases of extreme abuse, which is fairly often, I find it impossible to ignore them. There are virtually no laws here protecting animals, and there is no official police organization designated to attend to these matters. There is just one man, employed jointly by two counties (an area covering 2,000 square miles), whose job it is to attend only to cases involving large livestock (horses, cattle, etc.). As a result of this and the fact that people here often tend to think so little of the animals they own, cases of extreme abuse and neglect are rampant.

    Over the past few years, I have been in several situations where I found myself face-to-face with police officers and sheriff’s deputies who flatly refused to take any action at all. Even when there are no laws in place, I know that their badge alone gives them the authority to at least make “strong suggestions” to the owners regarding the treatment of these animals. But these police officials would rather simply turn their backs. In response to their ambivalence, and in recognition of the fact that I am “no one important” (and a woman, in addition to that), I have learned to be highly manipulative. There is always a way to find power – a button that can be pushed, if you look for it – even when you are in a position of apparent powerlessness.

    In one case, I called an official’s wife and pled my case after he refused to take action. The very next day the starving horses, about which I had been complaining, were seized by the police. In a similar case, with a herd of Longhorn cattle, I had been trying for several weeks to get the authorities to take action, but to no avail. Then, by chance, I saw the chief deputy in church. Until then, I didn’t know who he was, and he didn’t know me either, but as soon as the service was over, I went up to him and brought the situation to his attention. Within thirty minutes, a large stock trailer and several police cars were parked in the owner’s driveway. The cattle that were healthy enough to make it into the trailer were taken away. The others were attended by a vet and later removed. In another case, I went to a person’s house to inquire about a dog that was being abused. Apparently because I was, as Paulo says, “confident of what I was doing,” the man who owned the dog mistook me for a plain-clothed police officer and voluntarily surrendered the dog. He seemed to be afraid that I was going to arrest him if he didn’t cooperate. I didn’t claim to be a police officer, but I didn’t correct the man’s mistake either. I just took the dog and left. In yet another case, when I was sitting, parked, in the driveway of a house where a dog was being abused, I called the police to come and do something about it. I was told that they only handled cases where there was abuse or violence concerning persons. So, in response, I told them that, if they didn’t come immediately, there was going to be violence between persons. Of course, my threat was completely false – I had no intention of causing any violence. In fact, I was afraid to even get out of my car because I knew that the house I was sitting in front of was a notorious drug house and that the inhabitants were potentially dangerous. (In fact, after it was over, I got a phone call from a woman, threatening to kill me if I ever set foot on her property again.) Nonetheless, the police arrived within minutes of my call. They seemed very disgusted with me, to say the least, but they did take action, and that is all that matters.

    I’m not saying any of this to make myself seem like a “hero” in any sense. (The times I have failed have far outnumbered the times I have succeeded.) The reason I’m relating these stories and in such detail is just to illustrate that, as Paulo says, one person CAN make a difference, even when that individual is of no importance. Authority is not just a police badge; it isn’t even restricted to people in positions of fame and fortune. “Everyone is an authority, when s/he is convinced of what s/he is doing.” The most effective authority comes from within. It is like a beacon that is lit by the steadfast conviction that what you are doing is RIGHT, and that it MUST BE DONE.

  3. Keith says:

    It was La Carnival, it was the early hours of the morning, the streets were deserted and there was a body of a man lying in the street.

    I gently kicked the body to see if dead or alive. It was alive.

    What to do now? I did not dare bend down to make further examination, for fear the man would slit my throat. I was near a hotel and got the hotel security to call the police.

    Maybe I should have done more, but at the time I could not see what more I could have done.

  4. Irina Black says:

    И лишь сознание всесилья даёт “почуять на плечах ещё не появившиеся крылья..”(“Шестое чувство” Николай Гумилёв)

  5. Luisana says:

    Hi Mr. Coelho, congrats for your action, it requires a lot of bravery to do that. That scene is very popular in my country (Venezuela) and sometimes we hesite just because of … i dont know… We know that this person must get some help,even though we do not do something about it. Sometimes because we act like we dont care, knowing that we coul be in his/her shoes, sometimes bacause we are in a rush, sometimes because of fear of being part of a trap and being victim of delinquency, etc. But what you did, its definetly what we must do in these cases,I admire you cause you really cared.I whish I could do that too.Regards.

  6. Martin T-F says:

    Yes, it is strange sometimes, how large the gap between acknowledging and taking action is. Even for people with good intent, it is hard to stop and give a hand. Here in Morway, most causes for someone to lay in the streets of Oslo is a drug overdose. And the Police or ambulance would never care. Nor does the majority of by passers. But I did once see an old lady stopping by a broken man on the pavement. And the fact she did so persistently alone made the Police take action, and the old lady held the unfortunate man’s hand until the ambulance arrived.
    That old lady saved a life that day.

    And it does not take much more than to show someone does care, for the world to react. But then why does it seem so hard to actually react, and not just keep passing by like we always do, when such a gesture can save a life?

  7. AllaSobirova says:

    This story is awful because all these people who did not pespond never thought that they could be in his shoes…

  8. Siarah says:

    Too true, thanks for reminding us that we can all take action and show authority, if we choose

  9. Thank you Paulo, oh I really love this story!

    An unselfish, sincere heart is so precious.

    Love to All, Jane : ) xo