Stories & Reflections
By Paulo Coelho
On 1 July, at five past one in the afternoon, there was a man of about fifty lying on the sea front in Copacabana. I glanced down at him as I walked by, then continued on to the stall where I usually go for a drink of coconut water.
As a resident of Rio de Janeiro, I must have passed by such men, women or children hundreds or even thousands of times. As someone who has travelled widely, I have seen the same scene in almost every country I have visited, from wealthy Sweden to impoverished Romania. I have seen people lying on the ground in all weathers: in the icy winters of Madrid or Paris or New York, where they stay close to the hot air vents outside the subway stations; in the scalding Libyan sun, amongst the rubble of buildings destroyed by years of war. People lying on the ground – drunk, homeless, tired – are not a new sight to anyone.
I drank my coconut water. I needed to get home quickly because I had an interview with Juan Arias from the Spanish newspaper El País. On the way back, I noticed that the man was still there, lying in the sun, and everyone who passed did exactly the same as I had: glanced at him and then moved on.
Although I didn’t know it, my soul was weary of seeing the same scene over and over. When I passed the man again, something stronger than myself made me kneel down and try to lift him up.
He did not respond. I turned his head and noticed blood on his temple. What now? Was it a bad wound? I dabbed at his skin with my T-shirt; it didn’t look like anything serious.
At that moment, the man began muttering something about ‘make them stop hitting me’. So he was alive; now what I needed to do was to get him out of the sun and to call the police.
I stopped the first man who passed and asked him to help me drag the injured man over to the shade between the sea front and the beach. He was wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase and various packages, but he put these down to help me – his soul was weary of seeing that same scene too.
Once we had placed the man in the shade, I headed off to my house. I knew there was a Military Police post nearby where I could ask for help. But before I got there, I met two policemen.
‘There’s a man who’s been beaten up opposite number so-and-so,’ I said. ‘I’ve laid him down on the sand. It would be a good idea to call an ambulance.’
The two policemen said they would take steps. Right, I had done my duty. A boy scout is always prepared. My good deed for the day. The problem was in other hands now; it was up to them to deal with it. And the Spanish journalist would be arriving at my house at any moment.
I had not gone ten steps, when a stranger stopped me. In garbled Portuguese he said:
‘I’ve already told the police about the man. They said that since he’s not a thief, he’s not their problem.’
I did not let the man finish. I walked back to where the policemen were standing, convinced that they would know who I was, that I wrote for the newspapers, that I appeared on television. I did so under the false impression that sometimes success can help to resolve matters.
‘Are you some kind of official?’ one of them asked when I became more insistent in my request for help.
They had no idea who I was.
‘No, but we’re going to resolve this problem right now.’
There I was all sweaty and dressed in a blood-stained T-shirt and a pair of Bermuda shorts made from some old cut-down jeans. I was just an ordinary, anonymous man with no authority apart from my own weariness with all those years of seeing people lying on the ground and never doing anything about it.
And that changed everything. There are moments when you are suddenly free from any inhibitions or fears. There are moments when your eyes have a different light and people know that you are absolutely serious. The policemen went with me and called an ambulance.
On my way back home, I went over the three lessons I had learned from that walk: (a) Anyone can abandon an action when it’s purely at the stage of romanticism. (b) There is always someone to tell you: ‘Now that you’ve started, finish.’ And (c) everyone has the authority of an official when he or she is absolutely convinced of what he or she is doing.
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