Stories & Reflections
By Paulo Coelho
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 wealthy Sweden to dire 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 places 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 when it is pure romanticism. b] 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.
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