The Golden Gate Bridge, Reese Witherspoon, and Free Will

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Every two weeks, about as often as a Zoloft refill is delayed, someone jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge, making it the most popular suicide destination in the world.

This rate, however, may be understated due to the fog and the ease of late-night leaps. Motion detectors installed in 2005 counted 70 jumpers in a three-month period. To give you perspective on this overwhelming figure, 70 is the number of San Franciscans named Moonjava who open a co-op bookstore in a three-month period.

Although it’s strange the bridge has an allure for people who want to end their life, it’s even more strange the city of San Francisco doesn’t do anything about it.

Nine proposals have been made to the San Francisco City Council for a suicide barrier since the 1950s. All have been declined. Though a proposal is currently working its way through the process, by now it’s understood that proceedings like this have become innocuous formalities.

San Franciscans are just as apathetic. Soon after a highly-publicized atrocity in 1993 in which a man threw his three-year-old daughter over the side before jumping over himself, a majority of Bay Area residents still opposed a barrier.

Some people are trying to make a change. Parents of suiciders have filed five separate lawsuits, the latest in 2003, against the Golden Gate Bridge District and the bridge’s board of directors, seeking to require them to build a barrier. In a country where people win lawsuits for spilling coffee on themselves, it’s peculiar that all five cases have been dismissed.

And it’s not a question of money or aesthetics. The city has spent more than $40 million on improvements to the bridge, including a steel barrier between the sidewalk and traffic, and an extended fence on the sections of the bridge that span the land, even though the absence of either safeguard has never been a safety issue.

Other suicide hot spots, like the Sydney Harbor Bridge, Mt. Mihara, the Arroyo Seco Bridge, and the Prince Edward Viaduct all received barriers once it became apparent they were Meccas for the depressed. After the barriers were in place, the number of jumpers fell dramatically, no pun intended. What’s even more remarkable is never has government mandate ever been so effective.

So what’s going on? If this was Berlin circa 1939, I would say that the city is trying to rid its streets of undesirables, but San Francisco is so top-heavy on equality it thinks pets should be citizens.

Before we understand the issue, we must first understand what the Bridge is. Like most landmarks, it’s more than a physical structure—it’s a symbol that represents a collection of emotions and ideas. The bridge is San Francisco; it is the Pacific coast; it is the end of a continent; and, most distinctively, it is the end of the West.

Also, “it’s the gate of the setting sun,” said Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer of the bridge upon its completion in 1937, associating it with humanity’s oldest symbol, as if its orange glow wasn’t enough of a hint.

As the bridge incorporates these values into our lives, it becomes a celebrity, like Reese Witherspoon. Consequently, it becomes romantic, but not in a Reese Witherspoon movie kind of way.

We remember Mary Jo Kopechne because we remember people who die at the hands of a celebrity, so people choose the Golden Gate Bridge to make their lives more important, even though it kills them. When we stop asking, how good a life can we live? we start asking, how good a death can we die?

But the bridge as icon isn’t the whole story, which I didn’t realize until I paid it a visit.

Without a doubt, the sight of the bridge, especially as the fog wraps its pillars, is awesome. But traversing the bridge can well be regarded as a religion.

Specifically, when I stood on the bridge and looked out over the skyline of the Bay Area, I saw life. But, when I leaned over the railing and looked down into the churning abyss, I saw death.

Life and death are ultimately our two choices. To attack or surrender; to flourish or decay; to confront or avoid. There is no vanilla. Every decision we make either advances life or degenerates life, though sometimes it’s difficult to tell how our decisions affect us. Even worse, we may forget our decisions affect us at all.

The bridge, however, exaggerates this dilemma. By reminding us of our efficacy, it has become symbolic of something grander than the city, the sun, the surf, or anything else Strauss could have imagined.

Live or die, the bridge beckons as the Pacific wind covers your back. The tableau conjures up your basic view of yourself and life. As a result, the traverse leaves you rejuvenated, or you jump.

Of course, it’s regrettable that people die every week in the waters below, but a barrier would numb the feeling of the bridge. It would delude you into believing life isn’t important because it would be a symbol of captivity, of the inability to make decisions. The futility of which leads to suicide in the first place. 

The city council, the board of directors, the Golden Gate Bridge District, San Franciscans, and Golden Gate visitors all understand that an open bridge is a monument to the fact that we can die, a fact that makes life that much more special. By allowing us the choice to die, the bridge becomes a monument to life.

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PsychologyMark Derian