Once in a while people ask me how I became interested in Emergency Management. It’s a very small field and so they often wonder how I stumbled across it. I used to tell them this story–this epiphanous story–about how during the Haiti earthquake I had heard that the country was crawling with volunteer doctors, so many they couldn’t use them all, but was absolutely desperate for nurses. That, upon hearing that, I said to myself “someone is in charge of organizing that and they didn’t do a very good job. I could do it better.” and became interested in the logistics of the situation (as opposed to the public health aspect–because I really, really hated my premed courses).
But as I get a little distance from my college-aged epiphany, it begins to look less clear cut. I begin to feel that I had been groomed for this kind of work. I begin to see influences and choices line up in a causal cascade. But I think that’s also a little revisionist. Yes, my story is a complex journey of choices and opportunities–just like everyone’s, but–honestly–I think it came down to a very human personality trait. Cognitive Dissonance.
I’m what my mother calls “tender hearted,” what my brother calls “sensitive,” and what my husband calls “emotionally empathetic.” If someone is crying on TV, I will tear up. I can’t watch rape scenes on Blacksails, I can’t handle psychological thrillers, and I can’t watch too much Gilmore Girl drama at one time without a little Office to lighten the mood. I’d be the world’s worst therapist (which I briefly considered doing) because I get so wrapped up in the emotional content of people’s stories. So I don’t watch (or read) the news. It’s a psychologically-protective habit I’ve developed since I was little. I used to think it was because I was lazy and self-involved. I WANTED to be informed, I just felt so unhappy–and helpless–everytime I perused the news. The sad stories would make me want to DO something. But I didn’t know what to do, so I just remained unhappy. But a series of subtle psychological steps changed my mind.
In high school, I rejected a career in humanitarian work because I was afraid I wasn’t cool enough. I didn’t know enough about the world (see news avoidance paragraph) to discuss it intelligently, so I couldn’t be a part of the groups working hard on these problems. But in college, I began to challenge my fears (and loved it). I joined Improv because I was terrified of speaking in public. I went to Jordan because I was terrified of traveling to the Middle East (not because of the violence, which I carefully avoided, but because I was afraid I would botch their customs and offend someone and get yelled at.)
I was also going through some self-image changes. I was learning a lot about the world through school, so I didn’t feel so ridiculously ignorant. My fear-training was making see myself as someone with a lot of intrapersonal resources to help other people–a champion, so to speak. I found out that I am a good leader under pressure and I can be very calming when other people are worried/scared. And I knew I wanted a job that helped others (up to that point, my choices had been medicine, which I hated, and public relations, which didn’t seem helpful enough).
So, to satisfy all these pressures, I ended up in Emergency Management (which fits like a glove). It’s forced me to face the pain of the world–I can’t be an uninformed EM anymore. I have to know that people are refugees, that they lose both of their hands to mines, that they die from malnutrition, that children soldiers exist with severe psychological trauma, that women are raped in bathrooms by the same men who distribute food to them. Emergency Management touches on all aspects of damage in the world–human rights, advocacy, inequality, political despotism, natural disasters which threaten the stability of an already unstable government–everything. There’s no where to hide. And it sucks. But it’s also freeing. Because now I’m learning how to make things better. I’m learning that there are lots of people helping, that we all have tools to help, that the news doesn’t have to make me feel helpless and hopeless. I still haven’t learned how to disassociate my empathetic spirit from other people’s emotional pain, but I’m sure that will come as I mature.
If you’re like me, worried about your ignorance, stability under pressure, and feeling helpless, then worry not. We’re all in this together. And whatever tool you have is helpful–even if you think it’s not. Believe an expert in the field, you got this.