Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Peril of Caring (in which I engage Oprah and Dr Phil in mortal combat)

Caring is dangerous. While I don't pretend to understand the complex firefighter psyche, I do know that emotions and emergency scenes don't mix. Firefighters have feelings like everyone else, but we understand that tears blur the vision and impair competence. It's not that we don't cry. We just wait for a safe place to do it.

[This was supposed to be an equal and opposite reaction to my Oprah post (in accordance with Newton's Third Law of Motion), but instead it sounds like Oprah and Dr. Phil have ganged up on me. Let's try this again.]

Too much feeling at ugly scenes leads to nasty things like Critical Incident Stress, so firefighters guard against caring. At least that's my uneducated point of view. You've probably met crusty veterans that don't seem to care about anything. I don't believe that it's really true. They've just figured out that if they cared about everything there is to care about, they'd go crazy. Instead they prioritize, and build defenses against the rest. Lots of the seasoned veterans I've met appear to be cold and cynical, but in reality they're saving their passion to apply in places where it will do some good.

[Back off Dr. Phil, I'm getting to a point here.]

Humans are programed to care. We care about our families, our pets, our homes, our friends, our neighbours. That's one thing that makes us different from wolves and bears and moose. Our scope of caring is much broader than other creatures. The down side of this humanity is that we are damaged when those we care about suffer. We can isolate the damage when the suffering occurs in far away places like Libya or Iraq, but when it happens at our doorstep, it is inescapable.

[I could have taken Dr. Phil or Oprah separately, but I think I'm losing ground here.]

Fortunately, in normal life we don't encounter disaster on a regular basis. People that do - like folks in Iraq or Libya - must have to develop some kind of major defense to keep their sanity. The rest of us have to deal with the loss of a friend here, or a family member there, but we recover and move on with our normal caring lives.

Emergency responders, on the other hand, are exposed to more than their fair share of human disaster. The result is that they protect themselves emotionally. They can't afford to make a personal connection with the people they are trying to help. It isn't pretense, and it isn't callousness. I believe that it is a mechanism that is put in place by nature to protect our vulnerable inner persons. Kind of like a figurative SCBA that provides fresh emotional air for our souls in an environment that is hostile toward human feeling.

[It looks like Ralph Waldo Emerson just joined forces with Oprah and Dr. Phil. I'm doomed.]

I think this is why it was such a stunning revelation to me to realize that I connect with people that care. All of those folks I alluded to in my Oprah post have faced more than their share of emotionally hostile situations. All have every good reason to not care about anything outside their small circles of family and friends. All have chosen to care about something bigger than that. That's dangerously impressive.

Wow, this opposite and equal reaction against Oprahism was a lot more difficult and hazardous than I imagined. I'll take Stephen Harper or Dalton McGuinty as blogger fodder any day.

To wind down this pseudo-philosophical post, here is a video clip that I saw on the Firefighting in Canada blog.

The fact that this guy appears to care about us makes me like him. I feel an emotional attachment developing. I see red flags and warning lights. I sure hope he never crashes on the stretch of highway between Raith and English River. I'd have to pay Dr. Phil a visit for sure.


  1. Well, you will probably remember that anthropologist Margaret Mead used to tell her classes that the first archaeological sign of a true civilisation was a broken, then healed, femur. She said for a bone like that to have time to heal, someone must have worked for the injured person, bringing them food and water and protecting them, until they were well enough to do their own hunting again. Caring is a sign of civilisation.


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