When you come up blank, remember those who are suffering
The computer stares back, unblinking. Deadline is approaching and I’m fighting to hone in on a topic for my column.
The most common question I get from those in other professions is about deadlines, wondering how reporters and columnists and designers and the rest of us in this industry handle the pressure of deadlines that never go away. You make one deadline — or miss one — and the next is standing there, staring you down like a bill collector, patient as an alarm clock — tick, tock, tick, tock ….
The answer, at least for me, is always about compartmentalizing, about doing what I can to divide work, family, and relaxation. Tend to each, take what nourishment one can from each, and the deadlines usually take care of themselves.
But it doesn’t always work, and this is one of those weeks.
On this sixteenth anniversary of 9/11, my plan was to write about that historic event and how it has changed our national psyche. It seems since then there is heightened sense of restlessness and unease in our national debate, perhaps contributing to the divisiveness we journalists can’t stop writing about.
But the rain from Irma is falling nonstop outside my office window, and I’m distracted. There’s little doubt many of those I see wandering around downtown Waynesville on a Monday in numbers like we usually see on July weekends are refugees, Floridians fleeing what could have been a much, much worse storm.
My thoughts turn toward the fact that three huge hurricanes came almost at once, and there’s little doubt in my mind that climate change is playing a part. Yet that’s become an almost impolite belief, and many who eschew global warming are turning scientific evidence into a political and ideological crusade. Ridiculous.
The complicated science and politics of global warming are spinning around my head when I get a text from one of my kids. My mind veers down a different path, wondering immediately if they are all safe. The storm has turned away from North Carolina, so they are OK. And as I take a step back from that blank screen, I recall that when all three of my children were still living at home, there was always a column to be had.
I’ve written about my son’s painted toenails and my middle daughter at about age 4, usually the pithy one among the three, once talking non-stop for 20 minutes before finally declaring, “There, I think I’ve said everything I know.” I also once wrote about having to agree to let school officials force my oldest daughter to take a urine test if requested, something I think is an immense over-reach of personal privacy in the public school system.
Raising kids was a very rich source for many years. But they are gone, and still the deadline looms.
Finally, I wondered if I could go into the archives and pull up an old column. You know, dust it off, rework some of the sentences, make it better and call it done. Nah, can’t do it. In almost 30 years now of newspaper writing, I’ve never “purposely re-purposed” — does that make sense? — an old column.
I’ve heard of musicians subconsciously stealing a chord progression or even a lyric they’ve heard years earlier or even re-doing one of their own, only to be informed by bandmates what they’ve done. The subconscious is powerful, and so it happens.
When the page keeps staring back, I am inevitably drawn back to my roots in this business, why I'm here in the first place. Watergate and North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin, and reading the newspaper accounts of that scandal and then the subsequent move, were one of the inspirations. That’s when a light went off about the importance of journalism and its role in a free and democratic society.
That led me to a high school journalism class and a teacher who valued the fundamentals of the trade and inspired hundreds of kids. I remember a quote that came up at some point in that class that I’ve come across time and again in my career, one coined by a Chicago newspaperman in the 1890s: “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Those words can be taken literally or they can be interpreted with as much nuance as you’d like, but they still ring true. This week, let’s hold off on “afflicting the comfortable.” There’s another time for that.
It’s a better time to think of how we might “comfort the afflicted.” Let’s take time to remember the families and the victims of 9/11, of Harvey, of Irma, of the earthquake in Mexico, and any others facing difficult times in this tumultuous time on this earth. Say a prayer for them all, give what you are able to the relief efforts, and be thankful for your own blessings.