The tragic events that can befall someone and the terrible things a person can do to another can be so awful that just hearing about them can permanently scar the soul.
You’d think that such incidents would be rare, but they are not. There is no shortage of them in fact. And while we are often exposed to negative news reports, most of the suffering around us goes unreported. There’s indeed a lot of pain and despair in this world, and there are indeed some who come to experience a certain type of personal hell here on earth. Throughout my career in law enforcement; I’ve seen it; I’ve contended with it; and I’ve felt its burning heat.
Often, when I meet someone, and they learn that I am a police officer, I am greeted with some comment or story about a traffic citation of some kind. It’s often a complaint about how they felt they should have benefited from the officer’s discretion, but didn’t. Traffic code enforcement is indeed the context in which there is the most contact between citizens and officers, so I can understand how this may be the default subject of conversation, but I’m nonetheless struck by the absence of appreciation for the many other duties taken on by police officers on a day to day basis.
For the most part, my responses to such comments are limited to a smile and a shrug, or perhaps changing the subject of conversation entirely. At times, however, when I am feeling fairly energetic and sociable, and when I sense that I am in the company of a reasonable person, I will respond by carefully steering the conversation towards other aspects of my work. I let them know that the pain and suffering in their community is probably far worse than they can appreciate, that they likely have a friend, neighbour, or family member, of whom they are unaware, who struggles with despair or suicidal thoughts, and that a large part of our work is dedicated to responding to such people in crises.
I must admit, however, that with the passing of time, I am finding it increasingly difficult to simply shrug off such comments as harmlessly innocent or uninformed and to maintain the insrutable socialability that is expected of a public servant in my position. At times, while I’m listening to stories about traffic tickets and the like, I’m also clandestinly tending to my own latest wounds. Though others may not notice it, my mind and body sometimes ache from repeatedly reaching into hell in order to pull someone back. Though others may not appreciate it, my days are sometimes filled with horrific events. The high-pitched scream of shocked mother being informed of the tragic death of a child is not easy to set aside. And though others may not see it, my mind sometimes struggles to unsee what it cannot unsee, to forget what it cannot forget, and to conceal the disruption of my own soul.
“So you’re the guy who gives us tickets eh”, she said, in a somewhat passive-aggressive tone. “Yes Ma’am,” I responded, while feeling a tidal wave about to leap from my chest. “It’s not all I do, however. I also hurry off to help those who are descending into the pits of hell. You see, sometimes I get there on time, before hell completely devours them, but sometimes I don’t. When I do get there on time, I have to contend with the hell they’re in, hoping it doesn’t devour me in the process. When I don’t get there on time, I have to grapple with hell’s destructive power, and I have to contend with how it will now be unleashed on the loved ones left behind as I break the news.”
“Oh”, she responded. “Yes Ma’am,” I replied, “I could go on at length about death and tragedy, pain and despair, and the devils that roam our streets, but know this: Many people around us are suffering, and while I am indeed the guy who gives you tickets, I’m also the guy who contends with the forces of evil and the uncertainties of fate on a day-to-day basis.”
So, the next time you are confronted with a moving violation, you might think about cutting the person behaind the badge a little slack. The well-being of people in free socities depends on a respect for the rule of law. This goes for the citizen in the street as well as for those who occupy the highest positions of authority in our land. Contempt for those we ask to enforce our laws breeds contempt among us all.
(Versions of Kevin Richard’s article first appeared in the Huffington Post and the Ottawa Citizen).