The Messiness Of Life

Just as I was about to begin this week’s meandering piece, I also happened to complete a remarkable piece of fiction that pointed me on a thoroughly different course. It’s funny how life works that way. We intend to go one way – and we take a completely different fork in the road. Fate jumps in and pushes us in one direction, while our brain is telling us to stay the course. We know what’s right – but then we do wrong. Or vice versa. Or upside down. Or inside out.

I’m not the quickest reader in the world and, especially if I’m involved in a well-written, thoughtful book, I tend to dawdle and re-read and linger much longer than I should. I found that particularly easy to do during the many weeks I spent with The Goldfinch, American author Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from last fall.

This is not a book for the faint of heart – and I would have a hard time recommending it to most people, not just for its doorstop-like 771 pages, but also for its sometimes sordid subject material, which involves some pretty horrid scenes of violence, illicit drug use, child endangerment, infidelity and more. That probably explains why a quick check of readers’ opinions on Amazon shows that a substantial percentage of consumer critics review the book very negatively.

On the flip side, for those with strong hearts, unsettled, questioning minds, fears about the future and puzzlement about the nature of love, this is a book that will likely stick in your brain for many, many years.

The main character in the novel, Theo Dekker, makes so many wrong-headed decisions in his life and is hit with so many cruel twists of fate, it’s hard to imagine he survives as long as he does. Constantly, he is met by brick walls where he is forced to make a choice between right and wrong – or, perhaps, the lesser of two evils – and it’s easy to cringe when we realize what direction he’s going to take when he’s forced to follow his misguided inclinations.

At one point he remarks, “We don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

Theo continues: “When in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: ‘Be Yourself.’ ‘Follow your heart.’”

For Theo – and for many of us – that’s where the trouble starts: “What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, sell-immolation, disaster?”

In our long, messy complicated lives, we’re constantly placed in positions where we must make both ethical and practical decisions that will set us on certain paths and, in turn, force us into subsequent situations where new decisions must be made. And, at each crossroads, we can look backwards and forwards to help guide us but, ultimately, our hearts and minds will take us where they choose.

Of course, we can use the combined wisdom of our past to help us make those decisions. Our education. Our religious convictions. The knowledge imparted by our spouses and parents and teachers and mentors and countless others. They all play some part in what we choose.

But there’s no denying our own being. For Theo, that being is most often a dark one who suffers the crushing of the world around him almost every moment of his life.

“No one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is catastrophe. The basic fact of existence – of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do – is catastrophe,” he ruminates.

Surrounded by that bleakness, however, Theo still manages to make his way, pulling something good out of the worst circumstances and, somehow, carrying on.

Because carrying on is what we all do, however much pain and hardship is involved along the way. For Theo, weighed down by unrelenting depression, he finds his own way to survive in the jungle, asking himself, “Does it make any sense at all to know that it ends badly for all of us, even the happiest of us, and that we all lose everything that matters in the end – and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy?”

We all find joy in our own unique ways. We can share it with others, but their reaction to or acceptance of that joy will not be the same as ours, because their joy is found in a totally different space. We search for happiness all our lives, tripping and falling and wondering and questioning, sorting our way through the catastrophes of life and discovering what’s important and wonderful and life-affirming along the way.

As Theo discovers, life is short. “Fate is cruel, but maybe not random,” he ruminates. “Even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open.”

Dive straight in. Get drenched. Because life is waiting for you.

Printing The Unprintable: A Question Of Ethics

Everyone has his or her own moral compass that points in a particular direction. It’s called into play whenever an ethical dilemma arises and we’re forced to decide either to stay on the right side of the moral fence – or cross over into the dark zone. In our normal lives, it’s hard to say how often that happens. But, in the world of journalism, it’s always an ongoing issue.

Several weeks ago, a university student who’s enrolled in a Masters of Journalism program interviewed me for an assignment he was working on. Specifically, I was asked to discuss an ethical dilemma I’ve had – and how I dealt with it. The more I thought about trying to pinpoint one specific incident, the more I realized that almost every single news story I work on contains at least one ethical quandary. That’s shocking to me.

As a reporter, I learn plenty of things that never make it into the stories I write – for a variety of reasons. The most common example is when a person tells me something “off the record.” Ethically, as soon as someone invokes those three words, nothing can be reported. But, as I explained to the student, when does that privilege end? Generally, those “off the record” comments are a sidebar to the main story. Therefore, once the interviewee finishes those comments, we should be back “on the record.”

However, how do you know when that actually happens? You can interrupt the person and say, “Are we back on the record now?” or you can make your own decision. I believe most reporters do the latter – but if you’re not 100% certain, you risk having the person confront you later angrily, saying, “I thought that was supposed to be off the record.”

Further to that point, what happens if you learn something “off the record” and use that information to try and get others to open up? Technically – and ethically – that’s forbidden territory. It’s like your best friend telling you a secret and making you swear not to tell anyone else. Most people’s moral compasses tell them not to do it – but some people don’t seem to have any problem breaking that confidence. I suspect many reporters do the same thing, although it wouldn’t be something I’d be comfortable with.

What about offhand remarks people make that they never expect to be quoted on? Unlike television where you’ve got a camera stuck in your face and tend to be more guarded in what you say, newspaper reporting is often more like having a conversation with someone. In many situations, people will reveal certain confidential information or make an off-the-cuff remark, perhaps one that is inflammatory, sarcastic, racist or in some way compromising, but without telling you it’s “off the record.”

How do you decide whether you should use the comment or not? I find journalists for larger newspapers often worry less about this dilemma than a small town reporter like me. They really don’t care much whether they embarrass someone they hardly know or make it so that person won’t talk to the media again. In the case of this newspaper, we interview the same people over and over again. We work and live in the communities we serve, so if we decide to “burn” someone, humiliate them or take their comments out of context, we likely won’t be able to continue doing our jobs effectively.

Does this mean we bury stories or don’t cover them accurately? I hope not. Instead, I think we find creative ways to get around the issue and tell the story in a fair and balanced way, without singling out a particular person and making them look bad. Most of the people we interview still trust us. They see us on the street regularly, so they assume we’re going to treat them fairly. If we don’t, we’re taking a huge gamble – and we better be prepared to suffer the consequences.

The question of ethics has so many facets, it’s impossible to cover them all. Our main goals as reporters should always be to cover stories fairly, accurately, and without bias. However, that’s rarely as easy as it sounds. Often, we’re just not able to get both sides to talk to us, especially if it involves the government or large corporations, both of who either don’t return calls or give you only the information they want you to have and avoid your other questions. So, we’re left trying to do a balanced story when all we have is one side. Are we ethically bound to try digging up information to counterbalance the story?

In the end, it all comes back to that moral compass. If you have a strong ethical guidance system that forces you to stay on the side of good at all times, that’s wonderful. However, it’s also probably not realistic. As a reporter, you can’t always write positively about all the issues and events you cover. You wouldn’t last long in this often-cynical business.

On the flipside, if your compass doesn’t work at all, you won’t last long either. Journalism doesn’t often rank very high on lists of the “Most Trusted Professions,” and we don’t do ourselves any favours when we start crossing questionable ethical lines. Moral dilemmas will always be a daily part of our jobs. The decisions we make reflect not only who we are, but how much we value our readers. In my case, I hope I’ll continue to make the morally correct decision whenever I’m forced to choose. As a loyal reader, you deserve nothing less.