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VERY FIRST PERSON

A Journalist's Confession

How I Discovered The Difference Between Empathy and Understanding

September 03, 2000|MARTIN J. SMITH | Martin J. Smith is a senior editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine. His third novel, "Straw Men," will be published by Jove on Jan. 2

"You have kids?"

Hours before, my interrogator's teenage son had died in his arms. He'd parked outside a convenience store and gone inside, leaving the boy alone in the car's back seat. When he returned several minutes later, his son was dying, shot through the heart by someone firing wildly from a passing car.

I was the intruder/journalist, dispatched to his doorstep that day more than a decade ago to make narrative sense of his misery. It's a part of the news-gathering job that makes even the most jaded reporters uneasy, the part that eventually nudged me toward the gentler journalism of feature and magazine writing, even into the realm of fiction, where I alone control events. In every life there are pivot points. This was one of mine.

"No," I said. "No kids."

"Then you don't understand," he said. "You can't."

I remember how the charge offended me, just like those cliched movie scenes that show a mob of reporters mindlessly shouting demands at a dazed and terrified victim. I'm not like that. Most of the reporters I know aren't like that. We're in this business because we want to tell meaningful stories, stories that make a difference, and we're very aware that our efforts to report those stories sometimes provoke fresh waves of grief. I always hated that part of the job, but I swallowed my reservations that day and delivered my pitch:

"I may not have kids, but I do understand, and I hope some good can come of this. Maybe publishing your story will prevent another tragedy, or help other parents cope with grief. Please share what you can. Help me help them understand."

I'd made variations of the same pitch dozens of times, and it was no less sincere because it's part of every news reporter's repertoire. All tragedies contain lessons, seeds of prevention that can and should be sown. Just in case. Mostly it worked. The victim's father listened that day, then poured out his sorrow in words that swept me up in his pain. I felt that pain deeply and, with a young man's certainty, believed I truly understood.

Then I wrote my story, hoping it would be read by someone, somewhere, who might better appreciate the precarious nature of life and the incomparable tragedy of losing a child, who might think twice before leaving the pool gate unlocked or the infant in the hot car. I believed at the time I was doing the right thing, and I still believe telling those stories is important.

I'm just not sure I can tell them anymore.

Today, my two kids are healthy and happy and no less vulnerable to chance accidents and random violence than anyone else's kids. I can't help but feel the pain of parents who lose a child. Can't help but imagine how my own child might scream beneath the wheels of a car. Can't help but see my kid's face on the limp body caught in a gang cross-fire. Can't help but see my child's eyes in the dead-gone stare of a starving refugee.

I haven't covered much breaking news lately, and to tell the truth, I'd almost forgotten about the business of trading empathy for interviews. But the memories came back to me recently when my 11-year-old daughter, on her way home from school, passed a neighbor's house outside of which a half-dozen emergency vehicles had converged. Inside, paramedics were working hard to save a 3-year-old who'd been badly burned in a kitchen accident. What most struck my daughter, she said, was the swarm of news helicopters hovering above the unfolding drama.

My family so far has been spared that level of pain, but over the years I've watched friends struggle through similar crises involving their children. I've recognized the quiet panic in their eyes, because I've seen it too many times before. And over the years I've begun to appreciate the difference between empathy and understanding.

Empathy is negotiable. Understanding is not. When you truly understand another parent's pain, it stays with you forever.

How could all those grieving families share their sorrow with someone so young? How did they so graciously accept my journalistic mission and send me away knowing that, no matter how sincere my efforts, I couldn't possibly understand what it's like to feel betrayed by God? How did they harness their rage into what I now recognize as the most loaded question imaginable:

"You have kids?"

I like to think all those tragic day-after stories I wrote as a young reporter made a difference. Those stories teach us all, but they also leave marks on the storytellers. The dread I always felt before knocking on a victim's door was real. The emotion I felt as each grieving parent told me their story was real. The sympathy I offered was sincere. But I was wrong about one thing, and here's my confession:

Until I had kids, I did not understand. I couldn't.

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