The heart of it

I was driving home in the dark the other night and shouted out loud. My headlights gobbled up the road ahead, and I pushed forward, but this moment in my ears, through my headphones made me exclaim.

It was one baffled moment.

I was listening to the latest episode of Embedded, a fairly new NPR podcast (with cool music) hosted by All Things Considered’s Kelly McEvers. She, or other journalists, actually embed themselves into contentious or confronting situations and report from there. It’s an hour-long show and more than a little addictive.

This time, the format was a little shorter and a little different. The show featured journalist Rebecca Hersher. Rebecca has been stalwart on her coverage of suicide in Arctic and northern communities where the clash of tradition and the modern world elicit an uncontrollable pressure.

Rebecca reported from Greenland. The recent suicide rate has levelled those in the rest of the world, and youth deaths are especially sobering.

She shared time and space with several people, trying to travel from outside the cell of the insular world into its mitochondrial dialects and histories.

I was good with the podcast and the reporting and story kept me engaged, until the direction of the episode took a turn that caused the explosion on the dark Gwydir Highway, someplace just west of Delungra, NSW.

Rebecca had just finished speaking about the characters in her reporting, and assuring Kelly and listeners the main character Julius’ reappearance on the other end of her phone dissolved her concerns. She was fearful after his immersion in aiding with translation and closeness with people who had committed suicide, it had all become too hard, and he followed their fatal example.

I’ve lost people to suicide, and I understand the ingredients that can trigger youth suicide. I was dangling on the arc of the story.

*****

And then Rebecca said though the man who helped her felt better about his situation, helping her, translating the stories of his friends or countrymen and women who were touched by suicide, she felt worse.

Because she had to worry about the man. And I furrowed my brow into the darkness ahead and thought “Eh?”

“Once that happened, Julius became someone who was really real to me, and his problems and his worries became my problems and my worries,” she said.

She explained as a reporter, you travel into a different world, different lives, grow to sometimes understand the subjects, their lives and stories, and then you leave, not knowing if they will transcend the difficulties or devastation you have just reported, and you worry.

She said she thinks about how the next suicide will affect Julius and his family.

“And that makes me feel really bad,” she explained.

More furrowed brown, and I think I did say, “Wha?”

Until Kelly asked Rebecca: “And this idea of acquiring people to worry about – right? He’s another person on your list now that you have to worry about, and if you keep doing this kind of work, and I feel you will keep doing this kind of work, ’cause that means every month, every year, you’ll just have a longer list of people to worry about, and to check in with?”

That’s when I barked out “What?!” If I’d had coffee in my mouth, it would have spewed. If I had a peanut in my mouth, I might have choked.

Rebecca replied, “Yeah, it feels really daunting, I mean where’s the breaking point, or when do you start to forget? Like, I start to wonder, if I don’t start to forget about people, actually, I’ll be overwhelmed, and I won’t be able to do my job.”

I understand where Rebecca is coming from, but I felt completely deflated and disappointed by the sudden shift of the podcast.

From suicide becoming Greenland’s contemporary national catastrophe, to Kelly verbally circling Rebecca’s shoulders in a hug because she now had to worry astonished me.

I am not criticizing the intent of her reporting, the production, her moxy to travel to a completely foreign land and share its dark notoriety with listeners.

I am not certain if the two had a conversation prior to production that would make space for this self-examination, but in my opinion, it was completely inappropriate. It diminished the power, and the rawness of people choosing to end their lives on a remote, dark and under-resourced country.

And I thought, this is the heart of it, this world of ours today. More and more, we are the center of our world.

I would not say Rebecca made it all about her, or Kelly intended to do so, but that’s how it felt. It is how so many things feel these days. That conversation would have fit well on a podcast like How Sound, which looks into the story behind radio storytelling. A great place to discuss the weight of covering difficult issues. Embedded? Not so much.

The world, and the United States explicitly, has become a casualty of the ethos of ‘me’. Where we feel an intense need to express in the public eye how we feel, how we were affected, how out emotions were compromised.

I would understood Rebecca had worried. It is not difficult to guess the conflict within a journalist as they did embed themselves in a seismic situation as Greenland.

Can we not just tell the story, and trust the viewer, or the listener, the spectator, to come to their own conclusions? Is it an indication of our disengagement from, not sympathy, but empathy?

It’s no indictment, and I won’t turn off Embedded, but it did give me something to think about. And in the end, it wasn’t about Greenland’s suicide rate, and I think that’s my point.

The featured image is Nuuk, Greenland, photo by Bastien Labat.

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