Several of my friends are high flyers in professions that put them in the paths of stressed-out people. Human and animal doctors come to mind, among others.
Recently a friend (call her Suze) was lamenting that one of her favorite patients “no longer trusted her” because Suze had delivered hard news that some pundit on the Internet swore could be overcome with homeopathy and divine intervention, not expensive medicines. When the patient died anyway, after a not-insignificant bill and a lot of tears on the part of my friend, the patient’s husband let fly with some fairly unfiltered accusations.
Listening to Suze describe how it felt to lose a patient AND get blamed for it, my mind went back to a conversation I’d held more than ten years ago. I’d been househunting, and a really lovely home was going for cheap after a fire. Both the realtor and the former owner had said with some bitterness that most of the damage was due to “water and fireman” rather than actual flames. I said as much in casual conversation not long after, and the group with which I was conversing shifted uneasily. Two of them were volunteer firefighters.
They told us what it was like to fight fires; you choose to enter a space where you know living beings are dying, and try not to join them while getting them out. You are angry, and you are afraid, and there is enough adrenaline coursing through your veins to literally kill you if it distracts from discerning every nuance of what’s happening all around you.
Intense concentration coupled with high emotion: that anger has to go somewhere. “Joe,” the younger of the firemen, described smashing a window with his axe “only because I was so mad. It has to go someplace, and you’re in what looks like Hell and you know somebody’s in there and you can’t find them. Hell, yeah, smashed windows is the least of it.”
And afterward, when the homeowner has their dog back, or not, and they survey the wreck of what their family nest became, the firefighters find a familiar pattern. “At first it’s ‘thank you thank you’ and then it’s ‘what the bleep did you do to my house?’ Just like us, their anger has to go somewhere. We know that. They yell at us because they’re scared and angry. It’s not personal. We know something about how that feels.”
It is difficult to be the person in a profession that fights literal, medical, administrative, or even social justice fires on a regular basis. It is also difficult to be the victim/person who needs that done. Cutting each other a little slack is a good idea. Suze will deal with survivor anger. Joe will continue to whack a window now and again. The people who counted on them to return their lives to normal will figure out that all the humans were on the same side, fighting a destructive force that has no feelings or plans; neither cancer nor fires are sentient beings capable of personal vendettas.
And perhaps we will try to be nicer to each other. By the way, check your smoke alarm batteries, and get screened whenever possible. Thanks.