Amusement parks used to scare the heck out of me. I worried I would get separated from my family. I worried my brother would not share a bite of his delicious funnel cake. I thought the teacups ride would make me nauseous — usually because of the funnel cake.
Roller coasters were the worst.
It took me some years to realize what I dreaded was not the steep drops and the sudden turns. It was the inevitability — the slow chug-a-lug to the top of the ride, knowing all along what was to come next — and that it could not be avoided.
It is that same sense of inescapable dread that consumes me as often as I watch the slow buildup to predictable outcomes.
By the time St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced the grand jury’s decision not to indict the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer who killed Michael Brown, the writing had long been on the wall. A state of emergency had been declared. Pastors and parents had called for peace. Legal experts had explained the jurors’ choices.
It had gone on for 107 days.
The buildup — that slow climb up the roller coaster tracks — had created its own sense of dread.
So by the time Brown’s mother burst into tears and the city caught on fire, my stomach was already tight. No matter the outcome, there was sure to be tragedy all around.
Fear of the inevitable — or exhaustion brought about by the certainty of it — takes a psychic toll in less tragic circumstances too.
Political campaigns, for instance, can be an inexorable slog, even when you are convinced the outcome matters. But that’s easy to miss when all you want to do is watch a game show at the end of the day, and back-to-back campaign season political ads — cynical and ceaseless — ruin your evening.
For political reporters, hearing a stimulating speech from a gifted candidate is exciting the first time (see roller coaster analogy), but listening to it again and again takes the sparkle out of the thing. I’m looking at you, Barack Obama … John Edwards … Bill Clinton …
And watching Congress vote dozens of times to repeal this law or pass that bill drains all anticipation, because you know it will never matter to anyone except the people who make the political ads.
Still and all, I cling to the optimism that allows me to cover the news. By definition, journalists are forced to root for unpredictable outcomes. That means we cover epidemics with the hope of a cure, legislation with the hope that there will be a law,riots with the hope of peace.
In the meantime, we ride the roller coaster, dreading the slow ride uphill, savoring the peak and hoping for the thrill of accomplishment at the end.
And give thanks for that.