Most of the time, most of us live in something we think of as ordinary life. (We’re wrong about that, but never mind.) We earn money, eat food, drive our kids around, enjoy a little recreation; and nothing much happens to disturb our routine beyond some mild annoyances. Then something—violence, natural disaster, sickness, accident—reaches down like a tornado finger out of the sky and wrecks it all to pieces, leaving us stunned, bereft, hurt.
And most of us aren’t really prepared for that. We don’t practice coping with disaster the way we practice driving a car or playing the cello. So our society has built up entire vocations of people whose jobs are to deal with those awful blindsiding events. That’s pretty remarkable when you think about it. Something horrific happens and a third party, someone with absolutely no personal involvement, interposes himself in the situation to do what must be done—to put out fires not on his property, to administer medical care to strangers, to deal with the aftermath of a fatality, whatever the case may be. Yes, it’s his job and yes, he gets paid for it, but I think we all know his salary is far from proportionate to his personal risk and potential psychological cost.
These vocations have their procedures. Some might seem boneheaded to outsiders, and perhaps some are, but many are just good sense. They have been forged in the fires of necessity to keep bad situations from getting worse, whether that means preventing more accidents at the scene of a collision or simply maintaining an element of order and dignity for those who suffer and grieve. These services may or may not be noticed by those being served, but I hate to think of what would ensue if they weren’t being performed.
Of course emergency workers, law enforcement, and military personnel have to undergo specialized training to operate weapons, put out fires, get people breathing again after they’ve stopped, and so on. But beyond this, there’s a psychological hardening that simply must occur for any of that other training to do any good—a hardening that enables these people to function in situations that would send most folks into an emotional tailspin.
There’s an episode of Angel where some police officers are forced to undergo sensitivity training. At first the officers scoff at the trainer, but soon they begin to open up, communicate their feelings, and express empathy to one another in a way that seems positive. But the emotional openness escalates, and soon things are being said which should not be said, or at least not at that time or in that place or before that audience. Before long the entire police force has lost all emotional control, and the officers cannot perform their jobs. They can’t bring themselves to subdue aggressors by force or even break windows to pursue wrongdoers. It transpires that the sensitivity trainer was a sort of shaman hired by a recently arrested local crime boss to incapacitate the police force so that he, the crime boss, could escape incarceration and exact some vengeance on particular officers without fear of retribution. Like most episodes of Angel and of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this one takes an observable societal principle, exaggerates it for effect, and follows it to its logical, though overblown, conclusion.
My point here is not that all self-restraint is good or that all emotional expression is bad, whether in law officers, emergency workers, military personnel, or members of any vocation. What has really struck me lately is simply that there is a cost to serving in this manner, and that there are individuals willing to pay it. Often they are young. Often they have small children at home in need of a tenderness that’s at odds with that whole psychological hardening thing. Yet these people choose to interpose themselves into dangerous or emotionally damaging situations for the sake of the rest of us. I find this extraordinary.
This word interpose is a good one. Its simplest definition is “to place between.” Whenever I hear it I think of the line in “Come Thou Fount” that runs, “He, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.” Talk about physical risk and psychological cost! Even in a resurrected and glorified state, Jesus has scars. The fact that he is omniscient and eternal and that God the Father raised him from the dead and restored him to his former glory does not nullify or cheapen his suffering and death. They happened. They hurt. They matter. They did for me what I could not do for myself, and for that I am grateful.