As I learned of the attacks in Paris along with the rest of the world, I realized that I was processing the information differently than I might have with similar events in the past. Naturally, this realization led me to ask myself more questions, and I think I have the answer, or part of it.
I’m more sensitive because I no longer have to filter things like this through the lens of journalism. Before I explain, let me be clear: Some of the most compassionate people I know are journalists. Many of them are my friends and they are some of the nicest people I know and they do great work. Although I’m no longer in the industry, quality journalism will always have a special place in my heart and it should always have a special place in the world. And when things like this happen, many journalists are right there along with the rest of us, grieving. People claim all journalists are just opportunistic and eagerly wait for something like this to happen, yet in my experience, this is simply not true. The vast majority care. So I consider what I’m about to say an indictment of myself, not of the industry.
That said, when your job is to report and investigate tragedies like this one, you have to guard your heart carefully if you’re going to be any good at it. Most of the time, this is a temporary thing: Once you have time to sit and think, it hits you. And you grieve. Often times, for many journalists, tragedies are the only times your employers are comfortable with you having a public opinion on something.
When I was a journalist, I wore this like a badge of honor. Personally, I’m pretty good at withholding emotion in order to get things done anyway, so doing it for work came naturally to me. Truth be told, as I reflect, I realize that when something like this happened, I thrived off the adrenaline. I rushed to get the newest “death toll” and tell everyone I could about it. I scoured all information I could get my hands on, all in the name of informing others and bringing clarity and context to an uncertain and complicated situation. In live TV, in particular, the thrill of calling the shots in a control room allows you to put all other things aside. It’s easy to get lost in the moment. You tell yourself you do it to get the job done. You do it because someone has to and you’re good at it. You do it because people are relying on you to explain things. To calm their fears.
Before I knew it, I became something I didn’t used to be. I was desensitized. Cold. For someone who works around tragedy all day, when something else happens, it’s just another day at the office. This doesn’t mean you don’t grieve or feel sadness. You do. But for me, over time, the longer I did it, the less compassionate I became. It’s not a conscious decision I made. It’s kind of like you’re a sculpture and each terrible event you have to write about or talk about is chipping away at you, piece by piece, until you’re something else entirely than what you thought you were.
But then I got out.
I realized I was living in a bubble. I was surrounded by people who were in the same boat as me, so I didn’t worry about it. I told myself it was normal to be so far removed from a situation that I was totally comfortable verbalizing what sometimes amounted to a callous disregard for human life. I felt like it was normal to make jokes because it helped me cope and I was just blowing off steam. I was keeping my distance so I could do my job well. I was doing it to help others. It was just another day at the office. Sure, I felt bad for the people involved and didn’t wish it happened or anything like that. But it did happen, so there I was.
I now realize I had disconnected myself from humanity. Maybe not completely or permanently, but I had. Perhaps it was just a survival instinct, but it was reality, nonetheless.
Once that bubble popped, I entered “the real world.” In the real world, there’s compassion. True compassion. There’s hope. There’s optimism. And there is so much life and not as much death anymore. Disaster doesn’t surround me and I more freely get to choose what does.
Is this new world all rainbows, unicorns and fairytales? Absolutely not. It is, after all, real. But it’s different. It allows for more emotion. It allows for broader community. It allows me to more freely feel, whenever I want.
So I may not have the latest “death toll” on the latest tragedy for you. I may not know how many miles away the attacks were from each other or which landmarks are closest. But I can openly mourn, whenever I want. I can allow myself to sit down and really think about what happened and how we might stop it from happening again. I don’t have to worry myself with nonsensical and sometimes offensive opinions in an attempt to appear “unbiased.” I can do my best to ignore the politicization of a tragedy, rather than eagerly rush to tell others what so-and-so-said or tweeted or did. I can remain informed without being addicted.
Having a new perspective on life has allowed me to continue my pursuit of just being a better human being. Certainly, such a pursuit can occur wherever you are in life. But sometimes, it takes a leap of faith — a significant change — to get you to where you want to go.
Probably the two biggest reasons I got into journalism in the first place were to inform and to tell stories. Both are things I still love to do and I’m confident I always will. Fortunately, I’ve learned these two things are bigger than any one industry. And, more importantly, it wasn’t just that I wanted a career that allowed me to do these things. I also want a personal life that allows me to do these things. To most effectively tell stories, you also have to listen. To effectively listen and understand a story, I think you need to have compassion for the person telling it.
It took a professional change for me to make the personal changes I wanted to make. What’s stopping you from being who you’d like to be? Maybe a subtle change, piece by piece, like a sculpture, is needed. Maybe it’s time to take a leap of faith and make a more dramatic change.
I feel for the people of France today, much more so than I would if I were behind a wall of screens telling people what to do in an effort to inform others while also trying to keep their attention. These days, I prefer to truly feel and make change through more intimate relationships. Maybe I’m not reaching 50,000 people at a time anymore, but maybe, just maybe, I’m more effectively connecting with and helping those who I do come into contact with.
Maya Angelou once said, “I’m convinced of this: Good done anywhere is good done everywhere. For a change, start by speaking to people rather than walking by them like they’re stones that don’t matter. As long as you’re breathing, it’s never too late to do some good.”
It’s never too late to change. It’s never too late to do good. It’s never too late to be who you want to be.