Don Ritchie, the Savior of the Suicidal, Died in May

“A conversation can change a life.” – Donald Ritchie

I know it’s odd to publish a post about someone’s death this belatedly, but I had no idea that this wonderful man had passed on, and I think he deserves a posthumous mention. Also known as the “Angel of the Gap,” this brave and compassionate Australian devoted more than half his life to saving people from attempting to end their lives by jumping off a cliff  near his home. reports:

Mr Ritchie spent 50 years coaxing desperate people back from The Gap, the notorious cliff at Watsons Bay where hundreds have died or thought about taking their lives.

He helped save 500 despairing souls – usually with little more than compassion, a warm smile and a hot cuppa.

“Those who knew him knew he was a very strong person and a very capable person,” Mr Ritchie’s daughter Sue said today.

Federal MP Malcolm Turnbull, whose electorate includes The Gap, added: “A true hero, one of our greatest Australians. RIP.”

Born in Vaucluse in 1926, Mr Ritchie died peacefully at home on Old South Head Road, Watsons Bay yesterday.

The former navy seaman turned life insurance salesman was never one to shout about his exploits.

He helped because he could.

Ms Ritchie said: “It was just something that he saw and that he had to do something about.”

New South Wales Mental Health Minister Kevin Humphries recalled when Mr Ritchie was named a Local Hero in the 2011 Australian of the Year Awards.

“Upon accepting the award Mr Ritchie urged people to never be afraid to speak to those most in need,” he said.

“Always remember the power of the simple smile, a helping hand, a listening ear and a kind word.”

A funeral will be held in Sydney on Friday.

Mr Ritchie’s family asked for donations to be made to the Black Dog Institute or to Lifeline.

As humble and simple as he was altruistic. The Global Post offered a more detailed account of his exploits, though it’s unfortunate that so few major media outlets mentioned him much before or after he died.

In his earlier years, Ritchie would physically restrain people from jumping off the cliff while his wife called the police, UPI reported. However, as he got older, he would simply offer distraught people at the edge of the Gap a cup of tea and someone to talk to.

Father Tony Doherty from Rose Bay Parish and a good friend of Ritchie’s told ABC News about the first time he saw Don literally talk someone off the ledge.

“I watched this figure gradually encourage [a man] to come back to the safety of the cliff,” said Father Doherty. “He has this wonderful soft, appealing voice that encouraged this little fellow not to jump.”

Ritchie won numerous community awards and a Medal of the Order of Australia for his efforts, and was named an Australian local hero of the year in 2011, according to the Telegraph. He also received gifts, Christmas cards, and letters from those he saved, sometimes a decade or two later, the Telegraph reported.

“Those who knew him knew he was a very strong person and a very capable person,” Ritchie’s daughter Sue told AAP News on Monday. “It was just something that he saw and that he had to do something about.”

However, Ritchie was not always successful in his attempts to stop suicides, according to the Telegraph. He saw several people jump, including one instance where he spoke to a quiet young man who “just kept looking straight ahead,”  Ritchie told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2009.

“I was talking to him for about half an hour thinking I was making headway,” said Ritchie. “I said ‘why don’t you come over for a cup of tea, or a beer, if you’d like one?’ He said ‘no’ and stepped straight off the side his hat blew up and I caught it in my hand.”

Whether he saved 160 people or 500 doesn’t matter – even saving a single human life is incalculably valuable. Mr. Ritchie has left behind quite a legacy: imagine having over a hundred people go on with their lives because you did nothing more than offer them an ear.

Not only is a wonderful example of the best aspects of humanity, but he offers an important lesson about what it takes to help another human being. All any of us want as humans, whether we’re suicidal or not, is someone to talk to and care. A small show of kindness or a simple offer to hear someone out could literally be all it takes. As Mr. Ritchie was found of saying, “a conversation could change a life.”

Indeed, he changed far more than many of course ever hope to. I hope more people take his lesson to heart. Think of all the lives we could improve or even save.

(To be clear, I’m not making light of suicidal and other morbid mental illnesses; obviously, certain individuals may require far more than human empathy to get better, as even Ritchie learned to his dismay. But the point is to at least make the effort. Taking a few minutes to check up on someone, be they friend or stranger, costs nothing but potentially save the most precious thing at all).

Finally, the Sydney Morning Herald also published an article that includes an interview with the charismatic but down-to-Earth Ritchie, whose sincerity and approachability makes it no mystery that he could coax people from the brink. As much as I’m tempted to mourn his death, I can’t help but feel happy that he lived such a full and accomplished life. I’m further consoled by the fact that there are many other low-key heroes just like him (including a very similar case in Japan).


Iran-Israel Relations

As pretty much everyone knows by now, relations between Israel and Iran are at an all time low, even by their usually grim standards. Though the entire issues has been greatly sensationalism – by media, politicians, and even the general public – a confrontation of some sort can’t be ruled out.

Indeed, it’s arguably already begun, albeit covertly – several Iranian scientists connected to the nuclear program have been assassinated, while Israeli some embassies were subject to bombings a few weeks ago. Neither side has taken responsibility, of course, but we can be reasonably sure they’re involved in taking deadly jabs at one another.

In any case, I won’t be focusing too much on the somber political dynamics of this issue (at least not yet). Instead, I want to raise attention to the better side of human nature in all this: efforts by average people in both nations to express peace and solidarity with one another, in spite of the militant rhetoric of their leaders.

Start with this campaign, created and led by an Israeli graphic designer who’s trying to reach out to Iranians and assure them that not everyone is on board with all this talk of war. He wants the entire world to get wind of this, too, in an effort to dispel the fear and hatred that precipitate every conflict. You can see the introductory video below, and visit the Facebook page (as well as the reciprocating Iranian page here).

People are naturally raising questions about whether this warmness and good will extends to Palestine. It’s a good question, but at this point I’m happy to see any sign on amiability towards any group. If anything, perhaps this will catch on and start a trend for other conflicts? (it’s already spawned more than a few parodies).

Either way, it’s reassuring to see people take matters into their own hand, and not allow their governments to speak for everyone when they purport to represent the national interest. Politicians, elected or not, don’t always reflect the will of their people, no matter how much they’ll insist it (as they should, given that even authoritarian regimes with contempt toward their people stake their legitimacy on reflecting popular will). Governments and citizens are two different entities, and it’s great that the latter can now make their own voices heard.

Finally, I’ll leave you a more heart-warming kind of Israeli-Iranian relationship:

Love is all you need.

More From Nat Geo’s 2011 Photo Contest

Some time ago, I shared news about National Geographic’s contest for best photo of 2011. There were over forty gorgeous entries, and I posted a few of my personal favorites. There are still six days until the deadline, and there have been some wonderful additions since my last entry on the subject.

Take a look at the roster for yourselves, and do feel free to comment on the site (and here) as to which ones you like and why. The following images are some favorites from the new batch, with their original captions. Unfortunately, my space is limited here, so I had to shrink them down a lot. Check out the originals in the list if you want to see them in their full breathtaking glory.

FISHING ON THE CLOUD: Anglers fishing in the mist rising from the reservoir by dawn look like fishing on cloud. Gosam reservoir, Anseong, Gyeonggi-do, Korea. (Photo and caption by Sungjin Kim/Places/National Geographic Photo Contest

NATURAL LANDSCAPE PAINTING: The Landmannalaugar is probably one of the most impressive place in Iceland, a popular tourist destination. Located near the volcano Hekla in southern section of Iceland’s highlands. The area displays a number of unusual geological elements, like the multicolored rhyolite mountains. When I took this picture, it was raining and it became worse after. I waited a bit for have people into my composition, in such a landscape to have a notion of scale is important, hence you will find a group of people at the bottom left. Iceland, Landmannalaugar. (Photo and caption by Romain Chassagne/Places/National Geographic Photo Contest) #

29 WEATHERED HANDS: The Kara women collect the water, cook for family, harvest the fields, make the clothing, and are the backbone of the tribe. This elderly woman was the only white-haired person I came in contact with. I tried desperately to get a pleasing portrait and caught her hands in my peripheries; the perfect symbol of the woman’s role in tribal society in the Omo River Valley. Her bracelets are made from salvaged AK-47 shell casings, a symbol in itself for the cyclic theme of war and revenge between the Kara and the neighboring tribe, the Nyangatom. Omo River Valley, Ethiopia. (Photo and caption by Nicholas Wiesnet/People/National Geographic Photo Contest)

FLESH AND BONES: In a world where no one understands the importance of nature, all that is left of our nature is just these flesh & bones. Toronto, Canada. (Photo and caption by Amirhassan Farokhpour/Nature/National Geographic Photo Contest)

ATACAMA SUNSET: Setting sun lights up clouds over Salar de Atacama in north Chile. I took this photo in July 2011 and at that time clouds like this were worrying sign of more unusual snow fall which already blocked roads to Bolivia and Argentina. Thankfully this time it just served as spectacular canvas to a sunset and reminder how beautiful is the world we live in. Salar de Atacama, Chile. (Photo and caption by Magdalena Rakita/Nature/National Geographic Photo Contest)

If I could, I’d likely put almost all of them out here. As I said in my last post, I don’t know how the judges are going to make up their minds. There is so much raw beauty in these photos, and that’s what’s most spectacular – this is our world at it’s most natural and candid form. So many stories in each still shot, a mere glimpse of this spectacular and rich universe, populated with all sorts of characters, dynamics, and histories. I love this world of mine.