Yesterday, amidst a media blur of heartache and horror and heroism, I received a brief email from a friend. “Do you have a few minutes to talk?” Still reeling from the discovery that one of the Boston victims was an 8 year old boy, fresh from hugging his father at the finish line, I welcomed the distraction. Steve* is an exceptional scientist, one whose work has a little overlap with mine, so I assumed the request was professional. A job inquiry. A proposal idea. A question about NSF. Something – anything – far removed from the unfolding and unfathomable misery of a beautiful afternoon gone terribly awry.
Steve called right away. His voice cracked; he struggled for words. “Can you help me”, he asked, “remember why we do this job? Why it matters?” Today, Steve has lunch with a major potential donor for his institution, and he wondered: “how the hell can I do anything but tell this man to send his money to somewhere, something in Boston?”
Steve is an extraordinary scientist but he is an even better man. Get to know him a little, and you’re not surprised to discover he is a volunteer firefighter. Had Steve been present in Copley Square yesterday, he would have been one of those people running towards the explosions. We were two thousand miles apart, but his pain was tangible, his need to help – now – seeping through the phone.
And therein lies a struggle I’ve shared, as have many others I know in the environmental science field. Many of us enter the business not only from a love of science, but from a desire to help society better itself, somehow, some way. We take threats like climate change and biodiversity loss and air pollution and ocean acidification personally. We see in them not only the erosion of a natural world we hold dear, but the danger to that we hold even closer: our family, our friends, our fellow human beings who wish only to carry on enjoying the good things in life, big and small.
And yet, the nature of our jobs is to experience little tangible immediacy. We don’t fix a broken bone, stop an imminent crime, save a home from burning to the ground. We find joy in scientific discovery, but often wonder even without the stark catalyst of a tragedy like Boston: does it matter? Is what I do ultimately just an indulgence that will have no bearing on society’s fate?
I don’t think I helped Steve much, for I was adrift in my own emotional turmoil, my own recurring internal struggle for relevance. And yet, Steve’s call helped me find the faith again. I hope I can do the same for him. Just two months back, I wrote some thoughts about why I’ve stayed in this business. Boiled down, it’s two reasons. The first is the people – ones like Steve – who are kind and smart and inspiring and caring all at once, and who combine those traits around a desire to make a difference.
And they do, even if they don’t always see it, which is the second reason. Most of the time, that difference is incremental, not obviously making a dent in the sometimes frightening trajectories of our changing world. It’s a new finding that subtly shifts the debate. It’s a moment of inspiration and wonder for a student, the moment that sets that student on his or her own path of discovery and caring. It’s a door opened for a young scientist teetering on the edges of leaving the field, one that keeps them in the game, ready and able to do the same for the next generation. It’s thousands of little moments, occasionally punctuated by a few truly big ones, that make a difference in other people’s lives today, and when taken as a whole may – just may – help everyone live a little better tomorrow.
Is what I do or what Steve does or what any of us do in this field more important than the firefighters and police officers and EMTs and soldiers and doctors and nurses and countless moments of heroism from citizens spanning all walks of life who pushed back against yesterday’s evil? Not yesterday, and for me anyway, not ever. It takes a special blend of talent and courage to help in the face of imminent danger, to stay calm amidst searing images no one should ever have to see. But over the years I’ve reached some peace in a feeling that I can recognize and applaud and wonder at what such people do, while retaining a belief that what I and my colleagues do may, in some small way, help them continue to be there for all of us for generations to come.
*Steve is not his real name.
An addendum to above: A friend and colleague I respect a lot, after reading the above, wrote this:
Thanks for sharing this. I actually have to say that I think you are wrong. I think almost any of us would have done the same thing the first responders did, without thinking. We might not have had the same skills to save lives, but I have no doubt you would have been in there, just as actual bystanders did, to rip the stands away so that medical personnel could get at the injured, to apply pressure to gaping wounds, to help carry people to the medical tents, etc. You would have done it too. There’s no question about that whatsoever. Me too. Ditto pretty much everyone I know.
I hope he’s right about me, though can’t know that of course unless I was actually there. More importantly, I do think he’s right about people in general – when dropped in the midst of unexpected chaos, most seem to have a remarkable capacity for resetting on the fly and simply doing what needs to be done for their fellow human beings. I did not mean to suggest otherwise, but I can see how this line – “It takes a special blend of talent and courage to help in the face of imminent danger, to stay calm amidst searing images no one should ever have to see.” – might give that impression. The intent there, however, was to set apart those who knowingly enter chaotic and dangerous situations on a regular basis, as a career choice. To be a first responder of any kind is to know you will be in harm’s way, sooner or later, and that you’ll bear the responsibility of getting others to safety. A special blend of talent and courage indeed.