I watched All the President’s Men in an auditorium at Northwestern University as a journalism student. Back then, I was young, idealistic, and believed I could change the world with the written word. Investigative journalism seemed powerful and glamorous. But I also knew, from the many assignments I tackled under a tight deadline, investigative journalism was rigorous, hardworking, dangerous, and exhausting. By the time I graduated from the summer journalism program, I dreamed more about a vacation than I did about winning a prized assignment as a full-time journalist.
A year later I started working for the Mercury News as a features reporter and the remaining dreams I had of the power of changing the world through the written world evaporated under bylines about local citizens doing something larger-than-life, such as starting a program to retrain disabled veterans. The youthful idealism I cherished died before I reached the legal drinking age in California.
All of this came back to me when I read the essay, “Objects in the Rearview Mirror,” in the book, Heck on Heels by Mary T. Wagner. In the essay, Wagner recounts the mystifying discovery that a fellow journalism student she had studied with over 15 years ago had died by suicide. The youthful idealism they had shared as journalism students had led to certain death in one and a deviation from the career for the other. Wagner recounts the lovely moments they had shared as students and the bright lives full of promise as well as the underlying darkness that few knew about until it was too late. I remembered my own terrifying years living what I refer to as “the underground man,” in light of a Dostoevsky character I identified with in my early years as a disenchanted journalist. That I survived is a miracle considering how many writers don’t. The more talented writers often struggle with depression, although not all of them fall victim to suicide. I think depression is a part of life, just another season that lasts longer for some than others, and the trick is to learn how to deal with it effectively rather than succumb to the lulling apathy it tends to root in the soul.
Like Wagner, I deviated from the career of journalism. By disengaging from my inability to change the world by the written word, I learned a resiliency that carried me through caring for a disabled child and navigating the world-at-large instead of surrendering to defeat. Yes, there are moments when I miss the wonderful magic of believing in the impossible, but I also cherish the practical know-how of balancing a checkbook and cooking a meal.
If there is such a thing as a second childhood, I imagine it would be a blending of the ideal and the practical, the belief in the power of transformation and the knowledge of the hard work that goes behind the magic. If such a second childhood exists, I want to be a part of it, and I want my children to grow up knowing neither you nor your idealism has to die in the face of reality, but that you can find a way to marry these opposites in daily living by reaching for the stars with your feet planted firmly on the ground.