Our Gooey Blue Centers

February 6, 2018

I recently read an article on Calibre Press about a retiring Lieutenant’s hero: his wife. I find myself in a similar position. For my part, if there were ever a choice to make between my wife and my career, my career would take a distant second. She inspires me, keeps me human. For her I write this column.

Aside from my wife, there are many people in my life who do this. I owe them all a debt of gratitude. To all of my friends and family who are not in public safety careers, please remember how important you are to me. Your untainted view of the world is a breath of fresh air at the times I most need it.

For those of us in public safety it’s often hard to admit: Each exposure leaves a scar. Sometimes this scar is left on the body, but most often it is left on the psyche. This article is for the myriad heroes in my life who soothe those scars: thank you.

Experience is Destiny

As a result of my military experience as an infantryman and my career as a peace officer I can understand having armor on and using firepower to overcome odds that are stacked against me. It’s natural for me to locate and reduce my vulnerabilities and to exploit those very things in my opponents. I look at my skills from an unfiltered, realistic viewpoint without any attempts to preserve my own resulting feelings. If I’m not skilled at something, it’s best to address it through training or by compensating for it in another arena. There’s no room for hurt feelings or political correctness.

In my chosen field, this is a largely acceptable worldview. Outside of it, however, that’s another matter entirely.

It’s natural for me to shrug off things like a lack of sleep or creature comforts. Rocks make good pillows, same as backpacks. It helps to have a low initial set of expectations. Cold coffee works the same as hot. This leaves me rarely disappointed. Again, in my chosen field, this is an acceptable view. Outside of it, this is a largely unacceptable. It seems the mantra is: “If it ain’t broke, we’re gonna fix it until it is!”

I often apply this same low level of expectations to the people I meet. Somehow, despite the low bar I set for others, I still find myself disappointed. I’m genuinely surprised when I find people who are caring and kind. They are that rare to encounter in my field. The opposite should be true, like it is for many people who don’t do the job I do. This is mostly because we spend so much of our time dealing with those on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Many of you reading this article might still be surprised by the depravity I take for granted. It warms my heart to see people help one another. It almost makes up for all the times I have to see or hear about how nasty people are to each other. Perhaps experiencing and witnessing genuine kindness is a more profound experience for me than it is for those who expect this behavior from others.

When I go into the world, I generally do so armed with weapons and advanced tactics and with friends who are similarly equipped. I have lots of “tools” and practice. I have conditioned my body to endure the rigors of hardship, extreme temperatures, and spartan accommodations. When a piece of gear is basic and uncomfortable and ugly, it is generally referred to as “tactical.” This is accepted within my profession. Comfort and ease lag distantly behind utility.

I have seen, heard, felt and experienced things that make it difficult for me to even be sensitive to things that others find horrifying. I am rarely surprised, and often predict outcomes, that objectively baffle others who have never had similarly visceral experiences. Those of you in my chosen career field understand this. You understand “gallows humor.” This is a coping mechanism. The fact that those outside of my career field are mortified by it validates the fact that they have not been over-exposed to the conditions that explain it.

Those of you who have never had your emotions squeezed through a blender of interlocking horror, boredom, and fear go forth into your day without any of these advantages. Being able to shrug off physical and emotional hardships as part of the expected territory makes dealing with them easier. Having a schedule with predictable starts and ends and knowing what you will be doing today and where sounds very rehearsed and boring to me.

Because of your righteous expectation of normalcy, you aren’t equipped to deal with what we do in this field regularly. I don’t say this to demean you, but only to acknowledge this truth. When we laugh at a situation that frightens others and bring our tools to bear on it, this can seem very abrupt and intimidating. Often our tactics and motivations come into question. Sometimes people are just happy that they don’t have to be bothered with the truth or the details.

We understand the tradeoff. We don’t get this way overnight. It takes years of exposure. Some of us deal better with it than others. A stoic demeanor can be a disguise for an exceptionally gooey center. Sometimes the people most affected by an event are the ones that show the least outward signs. This career isn’t for everyone. Having the knowledge and physical ability isn’t enough. A moral compass that can guide you through the darkest alleys and cloudiest of days only gets you part of the way.

For those outside of this field, you are often physically and mentally more vulnerable. I don’t consider it a weakness, but a blessing. Because of our efforts, many of you will never be subjected, let alone believe, the darkest side of the world around you. This is by design. In many respects, the less work you see me do, the more successful I am. That’s why I don’t like to come home and share all of the gory details about my day. You think you want to hear them and see them, right up until you have heard them and seen them—and now you can’t un-hear or un-see them.

I am vividly aware of my own shortcomings. Accepting the vulnerabilities that I’m unable to control is difficult for me. Sometimes I even feel guilty about things beyond my control. Silly, but the feelings are still very real. I often have difficulty socializing outside of my “inner circle” of friends and family. Being open and genuine are your strengths, not mine.

I can never be vulnerable or completely open. In my world, those luxuries are often fatal. I have had my guard up for so long that I question my ability to lower it. I am often in awe of this ability in you.

You inspire me.

Your ability to open yourself up to others, despite the vulnerability it imposes brings me joy. The risks you take, be they knowing or unknowing must be exhilarating. Everything that I do is done to preserve those opportunities for you. The one thing that hurts me the most is to see innocence lost. This makes me feel like a failure. 

To you, my heroes, thank you for extending to us the grace of your companionship, despite what must be a constant barrage of intolerable insensitivity. Thank you for reminding us to scale back our judgmental nature and to let people be people. Thank you for taking the time to understand who we are. We have gooey centers just like everyone else, but they much harder to find and are armored heavily in layers of gruff and stubble.

Thank you for going through the trouble to find them in us. Your efforts warm our hearts more than you will ever know.

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