Last Thanksgiving, it looked for a day or so as though I might have to work through the holiday. When presented with this possibility by my parents, my son simply didn't understand. My Dad, who was a police officer for more than three decades, explained to his grandson that he'd had to work lots of extra hours if a job needed to be done. "Yes, Grandpa," was the exasperated response, "but you had an important job."
It turned out my skills were not essential to the project, which was largely completed in our London office. Of course my son was right. I was brought up in a house where a mistake at work might mean life or death. This has given me a perspective that kids whose parents have regular jobs, as I think of them, don't. But it's also left me, more than others, wondering how exactly what I do matters at all.
I have a friend who is a nurse anesthetist at a very well-regarded children's hospital. A few years ago she had a trauma patient come in. Good as the facility is, it's not made for emergency care, but in this case it probably wouldn't have made a difference. Still, she and the rest of her colleagues kept up efforts to keep him alive long after it was clear he wouldn't make it. By the time the patient finally died, my friend's tennis shoes were squishy with his blood.
These are the kinds of stories people with real jobs sometimes tell those close to them, but often I think they keep them to themselves because, let's face it, none of us wants to know the kind of horrors that take place around us daily. We only really care about the jobs these people do when our kid or brother or boyfriend might bleed to death or have a psychotic episode or be arraigned. We take the work of engineers for granted while our water is safe and our streets don't flood. (There are shows glamorizing trauma doctors, housewives and even lawyers, but the world lacks engineers because no one has figured out how to make sewage and bridges sexy.)
I have other friends and acquaintances who prosecute horrible crimes and still others who defend those who are accused of committing them. No matter how well they do their jobs, there will be those who criticize. Lawyers of this ilk are not usually the most popular folks at the cocktail parties. They hold themselves up not against social approval, but the rule of law. Really. So because they don't expect people to like them, the rest of us can rely upon a framework of justice that works pretty well, just in case we or someone we love might pass through it.
Once people understand the reality of actually doing these kinds of jobs, they tend, like me, to head elsewhere. None of them make a person rich, to be sure. Not being liked is really, really unpleasant for most of us, especially if we're not so brilliant that we're already used to it. Then there's the horror. When I worked as a policy analyst for the same police force my dad served, I thought for about ten seconds about doing the job myself. But I remembered the stories about the drunks on the side of the road at four in the morning, the children found cold and undiapered for days, the very messy suicides that in rural Ontario only the cops were there to handle. I knew I couldn't be one of these extraordinary people.
I care about doing my job well, and I will do my best to make sure my colleagues feel I've got their backs. I know that people depend upon me to get the job done, and I'll do what I can to make it happen. But, as my former boss used to tell her team, we are not saving babies here. Next time you meet someone who is saving someone's child or making sure your water is clean, thank them for what they do. Someday you might need them.