In the summer of 1985, Ken Baldwin decided to commit suicide. He had suffered from depression since his teens, and now, at the age of 28, the stress and sleeplessness of new parenthood made his condition much worse. There was a voice inside his head telling him that he was a failure, a waste of space, and he was convinced his wife and young child would be better off without him. He'd tried to kill himself once before, with an overdose of painkillers, but this time he was determined to succeed. He told his wife he would be back late from work and drove 3 hours from his home to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
The Golden Gate Bridge is the most popular suicide spot in the United States, perhaps even in the world. In the 75 years since its opening, at least 1,300 people have committed suicide there, an average of almost 20 people per year, or one person every 16 days. The bridge is so popular partly because of its beautiful and romantic location, but also because it's such a failsafe way of dying. Every jumper has a 98% chance of success, a much higher percentage than for hanging, a drug overdose, or shooting. The bridge is 225 feet high, and after a four second fall, jumpers hit the water at a speed of 75mph, with a force equivalent to a lorry crashing into a wall.
At 10 o'clock in the morning, Ken Baldwin walked calmly on to the bridge, and jumped straight over the rail. But as soon as his arms let go, he knew he'd made a mistake. Despite all his years of contemplating suicide, he knew that he didn't want to die after all. As he describes it, ‘I thought, What am I doing? This was the worst thing I could do in my life. I thought of my wife and daughter. I didn't want to die. I wanted to live.' He recalls realizing that ‘everything in my life that I'd thought was unfixable was totally fixable - except for having just jumped.'
Luckily, Ken fell feet first into the water, which is the only possible way of surviving. The shattering of the femur bones in the legs can sometimes shield the body's vital organs from the full impact of the fall. With the image of his wife and daughter in his head - and his heart full of regret - Ken blacked out. He came to a few minutes later, on the deck of a rescue boat with the coastguard asking him: ‘Do you know what you did? Do you want to do it again?'
Even at that moment, he knew that he wasn't going to try to kill himself again. Lying on the boat, he felt thrilled to be alive, to be given another chance. However, for several hours it wasn't clear whether this second chance would materialise. Although he hadn't broken any bones, there was severe bruising to his lungs, and he spent the night in intensive care, with only a 50% chance of survival.
But once he recovered, Ken felt an intense gratitude for his life, which has never left him since. As he describes it: 'Before, I didn't want to get better. I had become consumed by my depression. But after the jump, that changed because now I knew I wanted to live...Most people just have one life that goes from high school to college to marriage, job and kids. I have two lives: one before the jump, one after. I'm almost a completely different person now. I know now that I'm lucky to be alive. I may have had a crummy day at school [Ken is now a high school teacher], but I have my life.'
In other words, Ken Baldwin's suicide attempt led to a psychological shift, even a spiritual transformation. And his story is by no means exceptional. In 1975, when only 10 people were known to have survived jumping off the bridge (the figure is now 26), the psychologist David Rosen sought out and interviewed 7 of them. He found that all of them had spiritual experiences during or straight after their jumps. They experienced feelings of intense peace and calm, an awareness of a ‘higher power' and a connection to other human beings or the universe as a whole. And this state never faded. Although, in some cases it was several years since their jump, they had all retained this sense of meaning and well-being. In other words, they had undergone a permanent spiritual transformation. Most jumpers black out on hitting the water, but two of Rosen's interviewees remained conscious, and had profound spiritual experiences right at that moment. As one of them described it:
When I hit the water I felt a vacuum feeling and a compression, like my energy displaced the surface energy of the water. At first everything was black, then gray-brown, then light. It opened my mind - like waking up. It was very restful. When I came up above the water, I realized I was alive. I felt reborn. I was treading water and singing - I was happy and it was joyous occasion. It affirmed my belief - there is a higher spiritual world. I experienced a transcendence - in that moment I was refilled with new hope and purpose of being alive.
The man told Rosen how, ever since his jump, he had been acutely aware of the preciousness of life and the beauty of the world:
It's beyond most people's comprehension. I appreciate the miracle of life - like watching a bird fly - everything is more meaningful when you come close to losing it. I experienced a feeling of unity with all things and a newness with all people. After my psychic rebirth I also feel for everyone's pain.
Many of the survivors mentioned this new ability to empathize with other people. They could feel other people's pain and felt a desire to help them. Perhaps this tells us something about the nature of depression. Depressed people are usually self- immersed, so preoccupied with their own problems that they can't connect with other people's. Research has shown, for example, that people who suffer from depression are less likely to respond to requests for help or charity. But for the jumpers, the fog of their self-immersion was dissipated by the shock and wonder of their survival. They became able to reach out beyond their own egos. One of the jumpers told Rosen that he had ‘broken out of old pathways' and can now ‘sense other people's existence.' While another remarked that he now ‘loves God and wants to do things for others.'
Some of the survivors interpreted their experiences in religious terms. One person told Rosen that before his jump he'd been an agnostic, but in its aftermath, ‘I became fully Christian, I believe in God and Jesus Christ. It's still going on. I'm now in a period of painful growth, of being reborn.' Another survivor used religious terminology, but with a more mystical meaning, saying that since his jump he has felt that there is a 'benevolent God in heaven who permeates all things in the universe' and that all human beings are ‘members of the godhead - that great god humanity.'
The jumpers were given a reprieve. Coming so close to death woke them up the wonder and beauty of the world, which the fog of their negative thoughts and feeling had closed them off to. They realized that until this point they had taken life for granted. And now that they were aware of its value, they would never take it for granted again. But real tragedy is, of course, that so many thousands of others never had a second chance, the chance to correct the gigantic mistake of jumping off the bridge.
Steve Taylor is the author of Waking From Sleep and Out of the Darkness: From Turmoil to Transformation. Eckhart Tolle has described his books as 'an important contribution to the global shift in consciousness.' His website is www.stevenmtaylor.com