As a little girl, then a less-little girl, and then a not-little girl growing up, I had dreams and ideas about who I could and would become someday, and what job might fit me.
Maybe a nurse? I like to help people and make them feel better. I’m not squeamish.
Maybe a police officer? I like to fix situations, and help people when they’re scared. I can be confident in a crisis.
Maybe a lawyer? I have strong convictions about what’s right and what’s wrong. I need to dig in and find out which is which.
Maybe a journalist? I love climbing into a story. I want to know everything, especially the why.
Ultimately, after all that dreaming, I became none of those things.
I became a writer, because that’s the thing that shouted the loudest, and the thing that really fit.
But when terrible things happen, I often wonder — once I’ve gotten past incredulity to horror, and past horror to sadness, and past sadness to whatever shade of normal you’d call me — what I’d do if I was doing the work I’d wanted to do as a kid… but in a horrible moment that never would have occurred to my ten year-old mind.
At ten, there was no way for me to know just how bad jobs could really be, so I cherry-picked what I liked about them from the little I knew.
But now I do know — at least a little more — so I wonder:
Could I do what was called for?
Could I be a nurse in the ER, seeing things that are impossible to fathom unless you’ve been a nurse already? You deal with it in the moment because you have to keep going, but does it stick with you? Do you go home and cry? Do you panic when you see your kids cross the street because you know what it looks like when they don’t make it to the other side?
Could I be a police officer on the scene, defending people from people who are doing things for reasons I don’t understand, but who won’t stop until I stop them? Could I watch people suffering and stay focused on the person I was supposed to catch? Could I look even a little bit into the mind of someone who did monstrous things and not take things into my own hands?
Could I be a lawyer, putting so much faith in the justice system that I could sit next to someone — someone who could be crazy but perhaps was just evil, and perhaps knew how to fake either one beyond what I was capable of recognizing — and defend them to the best of my abilities? Could I sit on the other side of that same room and not end up yelling at the accused to stop talking, how dare you talk when your victims can’t… even if I hadn’t yet proved they had victims?
Could I tell the story in a newspaper or on a screen or on the radio or on a website without refusing to put up one more picture of that person’s face, that person accused of doing things they’d planned for months and took only minutes to accomplish? Could I chase down leads and put up details people were scrambling to hear, whether they were right for them to hear, or respectful of the people I was covering? Could I make up clever headlines for events that deserved nothing but shock and horror and punishment for anyone who would dare do such a thing? Could I push when a devastated family wasn’t giving me what my editor thought we needed to tell the whole story?
When James Holmes killed 12 people in a theater in Aurora, and injured dozens of others, all of these people had to step up to do what was expected of them, for better or for worse.
The nurses and the police officers will be revered for their tireless efforts to save people, and their attempts to wrest some order from the chaos. And that will be the right thing to do, because they will have seen and dealt with things most of us can’t imagine.
The lawyers will face tremendous pressure to prove that punishment is merited, that they have the right person, and perhaps even that the person we’re looking at is too disturbed to really understand what he’s done. And they’ll deal with the idea that it might not matter either way, because the why is overwhelmed by the what, and the what can’t happen again.
The journalists will feed us the facts we’re seeking or tell us stories that honor people we’ve lost — people who deserve to be remembered. But they’ll also put a garish face on evil that is both maddening and frightening… and also not as straightforwardly recognizable beforehand as we would wish evil to be. They will push stories too far, and pragmatically pursue the ones that grab eyeballs over the ones that elevate grace and goodness… because those things are too difficult for people to believe right now.
And I will be a writer: a writer who cries at pictures of exhausted nurses and thinks about what they’ve seen and who they’ve comforted; a writer who hopes for safety and sanity for police officers who wade through terror and chaos to deliver someone alive who they likely wished were dead; a writer who could accept life on one side of the courtroom and not the other, who doesn’t believe enough in the system to trust it to work; a writer who yells at the television when they turn the villain into a star, but who also craves words written about those we lost, and those rare moments when a journalist brings a life back to life… if only for as long as it takes to read 800 words.
I am not fit to do the things they do.
I am fit to do this: to honor those who walk through nightmares because that’s what they feel called to do, and because they want nothing more than to turn those nightmares around; to pray for those in need of wisdom to deal with unimaginable questions; and to read and share stories that deserve to be pulled into the light.
Doesn’t seem like enough, but in moments like this, nothing ever does.