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Visiting a different universe



German biologist Baron Jakob von Uexküll developed the theory of umwelt. Imagine each organism in the world encased in a soap bubble –– this soap bubble is that organism’s world, or umwelt. Effectively, this theory argues that each living thing exists in a world that is uniquely meaningful to it. Each functional component of one’s world (any organism –– bacteria, tick, human) represents that organism’s view of the world.

Newtown at nightI like Uexküll’s notion because it lets us reflect on the existence of umwelten (plural of umwelt). In other words, there are as many worlds as there are species. Nevertheless, it is difficult for us to consider the experiences of others; our worlds a bubble reflecting our movements, our desires.

One Saturday, I entered the world of another. Here, I invite you to do the same.

It's pouring down rain — a Sydney springtime storm. I head to the train, bags heavy with produce; I’m cooking dinner for friends. I walk down the steps of Newtown Station when a man ahead of me, walking down towards the platforms, stumbles backwards. I recognise that this man hasn’t just clumsily tripped. He leans back onto the step, a broken cigarette by his foot.

I walk down to face him. He looks forward; his gaze is one that sees the world through thick, stained glass. He didn’t hurt his head in the fall, but his eyes are heavy with sadness for days.

‘Hey, are you okay? Do you need a hand?’

He looks at me, voice breaking: ‘Yes, I really need a hand, I really need a hand’. He reaches out his arm and I close my fingers tight around his smoke-stained palm. He remains seated, gripping my hand tight. We’re holding on to each other and I imagine how stormy his world is. I stand firm.


"Later, I'll walk into the nearest pub in a daze and wash my hands. It feels symbolic somehow. An attempt to cleanse myself. From what? Why?"


I ask him where's he's going. He replies he's heading to Station Street. In Newtown? ‘Yes,' he says, 'I need to go home. I just want to sleep.’ 

‘Well, this is Newtown Station, so I can see how you made that mistake.’ I try to make light of the situation. I want to make sure he hasn’t broken anything. ‘Can you stand up?’

‘Yes, I'm lost, I want to go home’.

‘It’s okay. I’ll take you. You’ve got my hand. Hold on.' I reach under his arm and help lift him up. He’s bigger than me. Old, but I can carry his body in my arms. We take the steps slowly. His hand grips mine. I try to remember where Station Street is. He’s given me a number, but it’s his apartment number, not street. He says, Station Street is left. We walk out of the station. The rain pelts down.

‘Wait,’ I notice his windbreaker, ‘put your hat on.’

‘But it is on!’ He’s confused. He’s wearing a beanie.

‘I’m going to let go of your hand, but I’ll hold it again right away. Just one second.’ His body swaying, I feel he’s balancing himself by fixing his eyes on mine. I pull his windbreaker hat over his beanie, so it would stay dry. Some protection from the rain. Our walk is uncovered.

He grips my hand again. He’s stumbling. 'Drunk', he says.

'I know', I say, 'it’s okay.'

'I just want to sleep.'

‘We’re almost home,’ I say. I point out places as we walk down. See, here's the Oporto, here's the Caltex.

‘I’m so tired, I just want to sleep,’ he repeats.

'I know'.

He doesn’t have a key to the building, he says. Only his apartment. He says the number again and again. He’s crying. He leans on me but he’s not heavy. On the other side my bag cuts into the flesh of my shoulder.

He smells of cigarette smoke and stale sweat, of alcohol and bad memories. Later, I'll walk into the nearest pub in a daze and wash my hands. It feels symbolic somehow. An attempt to cleanse myself. From what? Why? The smell lingers on my fingers even after I scrub them hard under hot soapy water. I feel shameful and guilty for wanting the smell out. ‘Shame on you Na’ama’, I tell myself, but I keep rubbing. Out, out. Still, it lingers. As does my shame.

We reach his building. I used to live right by it, but was always too scared to walk past it in the late hours of the night.

We’re at the front door. Luckily, someone walks out right as we arrive. Can you make it up? I ask him. He stands by the doorway, staring at the lift. I walk in. It’s loud inside, louder than any building I know. I push the button and the lift arrives right away.

He can’t find the key to his house in his bag. He sits down in defeat. Tears shake his body in a violent spasm. I’ll help, I say. Can I look through your bag? Is that okay with you? ‘They’re not there,' he’s crying, ‘I lost them’.

Zipper after zipper, I reach down. Metallic teeth graze my fingers. ‘Look!’ I smile, ‘you didn’t lose them! They're not lost! You're home!’ He’s almost bewildered. I help him up.

His hand shakes and he misses the keyhole. I hold his hand and we unlock the door together. It opens to a small room, but there’s a bed, a table, a lock. ‘Why are you doing this?’ he asks. I look at him, face discoloured from streams of tears.

I worry I’ve done something wrong. ‘What do you mean?’ I ask.

He looks genuinely confused: ‘Why are you helping me?’

‘Well, I asked if you needed a hand and you said yes, I do.’

'I don't deserve it.'

I squeeze his arm — 'Of course you do. anyone who asks for help deserves help, and even if you don't ask for help, you still deserve it'.

His girl left him, he says. Took all his money. Why did she hurt him like this when he loved her so much, he asks, his hand clutching a broken heart. That's why he drinks, he says. It’s the pain. People are cruel, I reply. My heart was broken too. He asks, how can he move on? I say, the drinking keeps you with the bad memories. It stops you from moving forward. You gotta start over, you can't change what happened. No alcohol can change that. You can’t let the past take over.

He walks through the doorway. Go to sleep, and tomorrow don’t wake up in the past, I say, closing the door slowly. He smiles good night.

Outside the rain stops. I walk across the road, leaving a universe behind. In my umwelt, my soap bubble, the world is transformed.


Na'ama CarlinNa'ama Carlin holds a PhD in Sociology. A dual Israeli-Australian citizen, she writes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ethics, identity, and violence. Follow her @derridalicious


Main image: Newtown at night (Paul McCarthy/Wikimedia commons)

Topic tags: Na'ama Carlin, Umwelt, Newtown



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Existing comments

It can be difficult to imagine another person's existence, their struggles and their heartaches. We can become so absorbed in our own struggles, our own heartaches to see what is in front of us. Even if we do see the pain of others, it's easier to look away. Two people connected in this story and they didn't look away from each other. And, at the end, the rain stopped.

Pam | 12 November 2018  

Thank your for this article - a sobering reminder about being practical when faced with situations like this.

Helen Oxenburgh-Lowe | 12 November 2018  

Na'nama, I know the area you described . I found myself thinking about the situation and what I would have done . Very much a "Good Samaritan" story. It's a shame that in reality most of us would have crossed the road or walked on by. To be perfectly honest I don't know if I could do what you did. Thank you so much for sharing with us.

Gavin O'Brien | 13 November 2018  

What a beautiful girl you are Na'ama. Not too many people would have stopped to help that poor sad man. A true Christian you are - thank you for sharing your story. You have made my day and you certainly made his. Jan

Jan | 13 November 2018  

Judaism consistently refers to helping the stranger. It's a bit like Donne's 'No man is an island'. This is one of those sermonettes from life without being pompous or patronising. Someone I respected greatly would say you displayed true human qualities. I think you left something very good behind you. Hopefully the man you helped remembers your act of kindness. Perhaps it will inspire him. He needs to reach out to those who can help him out of drink and despair. There are so many places in Inner Sydney which can. The Wayside Chapel would be a good starting point. Like you, they help without proselytizing.

Edward Fido | 13 November 2018  

Na'ama, thank you for sharing this fine example of compassion and care. Your honesty and personal touch shines through the dim story of loss in this man's universe. His loss of self esteem, and subsequent loss of his ability to manage without your fine intervention. I do like your introduction which is such an unusual image of our cosmos, and the way you wrapped up your narrative in the same theme.

Trish Martin | 13 November 2018  

Thank you for that honest and moving account of your chance encounter with a man in need. Thank you for giving me a hand too, for calling forth a similar Christian response in me to anyone I meet who needs a hand. Chance encounter or providential meeting? I rather think it was the latter.

Ern Azzopardi | 13 November 2018  

Thank you Na'ama. Your story is a lovely description of your kindness, and an indication of the kindness we are all called to offer - sometimes at most inconvenient times.

Dominic Gibson | 14 November 2018  

Na’ama, Your story was a blessing that I needed today. I particularly related to your reflection on washing your hands. When I encounter a homeless person, I always exchange names and shake hands, and then have the same thought. But, as the saintly former parish priest of Redfern said to a guest when they heard an intoxicated man crash through the front door of his open presbytery and fall on the floor, “Don’t worry, it’s just Christ.” When a homeless man outside Southern Cross Station in Melbourne shook hands and said to me, “God bless you” I somehow knew I was looking into the eyes of Christ. Na’ama, you are a gift to all of us.

Peter Downie | 14 November 2018  

Na’ama, I needed the blessing of your story today. I was able to relate in particular to your reference to washing your hands. When I encounter a homeless person I always exchange names and shake hands, and I tend to have the same thought. But I am reminded of what the saintly former parish priest of Redfern , Ted Kennedy said to a guest when they heard an intoxicated man crash through the front door of Ted’s open presbytery and fall on the floor, “Don’t worry, it’s just Christ.” For me, when a homeless man outside Southern Cross Station shook my hand and said to me, “God bless you,” I knew I was in a place where Heaven and Earth converged. Na’ama, you are a gift to all of us.

Peter Downie | 14 November 2018  

So beautiful and up lifting ; most would walk on by! Thank you.

patricia slidziunas | 17 November 2018  

Perhaps the most salient point of Jesus' Parable of the Good Samaritan was the Samaritan himself. To his Jewish contemporaries he would be the ultimate outsider. Yet, for all his classic outsider status, he did not hesitate to help the wounded man. He did not enter into some precious little inner dialogue with himself which would have prevented him from rendering assistance. The most effective people in our often lonely and alienated society tend to be people like Bob Maguire, who do not see morality as being purely intellectual. Charity, as St Paul said, is not just about giving money. Real charity is about touching people's lives. Sometimes that means actually physically touching them. Na'ama did both. In that she was showing true humanity, which was the whole point of the Good Samaritan parable, which Jesus addressed originally not to the still nascent Christian Church but to his contemporary Jews.

Edward Fido | 22 November 2018  

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