On 18th May 2012 Don Ritchie, the man who stopped hundreds of people from leaping on a high cliff at Watsons Bay, The Gap, died age 85. Australians, especially those he talked out of suicide, mourned his death and paid him tributes.
He saved hundreds of people, a total of 160 according to ‘official’ figures yet the figure was more like 500 said his family. Regardless of the number, I couldn’t help but wonder how it all happened. I’m curious about the story behind the man they dubbed “Angel of the Gap.”
Mr. Ritchie lived across the road from the Gap in Wollongong, Southern Sydney’s most notorious suicide spot. His sister Sue said Don could read people who need help. I could imagine Mr. Ritchie offering his hand, extending it to someone terribly depressed.
Psychologists may have considered them a lost cause, a symptom of modern-day hopelessness, but nonetheless Mr Ritchie persevered with his life-and-death intervention. We were told he stopped strangers through his “kind words and a smile.” Yes, those two small things made a big difference in many lives.
People changed their minds. They decided, in a fraction of a minute, their lives are still worth living. Mr Ritchie offered them no theories, no lofty ideals, on how life should be lived. “Is there something I could do to help you?” he would ask. Later, he’d bring them to his place for a cup of tea or something to eat.
How sublimely simple and beautiful! He offered people what they needed most and often what they needed are very basic human needs. His heroism was proof that we need not occupy high-level positions to save lives and bring hope to strangers and friends. We already possess the capacity to care, which according to one German philosopher is the fundamental basis of our “being-in-the-world.” Don’t be deceived by its simplicity. We write poems, sign protest letters, teach our kids, walk our dogs, donate to charities and wake up every morning because we care. We care about this world, our lives and others’ lives. Take away care – what do we have to live for?
Mr Ritchie’s hand reaching out to a troubled soul ready to take a leap from life to death is a potent image of care and hope. We were told that suicide toll is on the rise. Mr. Ritchie has done his best standing guard at The Gap. It’s time we fill his shoes and save the lives we can save. Let’s start with ours and share our message of hope with others.
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