Saturday, January 24, 2009

Idle Musings

Recruit class is approaching fast (Feb 10), and I'm getting more excited by the day. My wife, though, has seemed to become less so as the time gets closer. After talking to her about why her mood seems to be shifting (she's been very supportive about the whole thing) she confessed that she was worried about me. I tried pointing to some statistics that showed I was really unlikely to suffer any permanent damage during my time with the department, but she said that she wasn't really concerned about my body, but more about my mind.

An interesting conversation ensued. She told me about the conversations she'd heard other firefighters having about previous calls they had been on (particularly gruesome ones, in this case). In the face of the macabre, many of the men adopted an air of humor or jocularity that seemed inappropriate given the circumstances. A person has died, should they really be joking about it?

It's a tough issue to address, to be sure. I cannot speak from experience, as I'm not even a recruit yet and I've never seen anything more disturbing than a dead beloved pet. However, living vicariously through my brother (a firefighter) and a few friends I have who are soldiers or in other similar fields (Ambulance EMTs, Medical Chopper pilots, etc), I can attest to the fact that people have to find a way to process the horrible things they see. Certainly even when considering examples of a far less serious nature, we can see a parallel. A common suburbanite may become ill at the sight of a skinned animal, whereas a hunter who has experienced such things uncountable times sees nothing disturbing but only a future meal and is in fact happy to pick up where someone else left off by continuing to dismember the carcass. Is it so hard to imagine that a person who's line of work involves the witnessing of the loss of human life on a daily basis becomes desensitized to the process a bit? What sort of life would an emergency worker live if he was broken up and somber every time he witnessed death? The emotional weight would be unbearable, I imagine that depression and suicide among the people who we count on to protect our communities would be rampant.

The people who fill these jobs deserve to have happy lives outside of their daily struggle through the most tragic events the local community has to offer, and since none of them are blessed with the ability to simply forget what they have seen they must come to terms with their experience in a way that prevents them dwelling on these events. If for some, that route is humor, than who am I or anyone else to speak out against it? If it keeps them from succumbing to the morose existence that I see as the only alternative, then by all means, let them joke!

But now my thoughts turn to myself. Am I willing to expose myself to the inevitable erosion of my sensitivity to death and pain? By learning to eventually harden myself against it, will I lose any amount of compassion or empathy in the process? I can't answer these questions from where I stand, I suppose. I can only go forward knowing that everything gained in life has a price, including the experiences I'm about to undertake.

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