The small, good things

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

Every job has its stresses, no matter if you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or the dishwasher in a small-town diner. 

Journalism is one industry with a particularly high burnout rate. The International Center for Journalists recently published a survey on how the pandemic affected journalists, highlighting the need for mental health support and interventions to help alleviate burnout among those in the industry. Exhaustion and burnout were some of the most commonly reported negative emotional and psychological reactions to the pandemic, with 38% of journalists who responded to the survey listing both as characteristics that make their jobs more difficult. 

It didn’t take a pandemic to make us realize we’re always two or three steps away from total burnout. It’s part of the job, which includes having your words scrutinized and critiqued by anyone who picks up the paper. 

If you have a bad day in most jobs, you might get yelled at by your boss, a co-worker or customer (or all three, if it’s a really bad day). When we have a bad day, thousands of people see our mistake and dozens will let us know about it — some with helpful tones, others with snarky glee.

There’s never a shortage of people out there seeking a bruise in which to press their thumb. Just this week, I was referred to on social media as a “proto-fascist” who “poisons the well” of this community with my words. For three years, Reader advertisers and I were subjected to relentless intimidation and harassment by a robocalling neo-Nazi who didn’t like that we reported their identity and racist activities both here and elsewhere. There is a folder by my desk that is bursting with all the hate mail sent to me over the years. I don’t know why I keep it — maybe for proof when someone says, “Your job can’t be that hard, can it?”

Don’t get me wrong, I love this job. I love providing our community with opinions, features and news. But being in this business means walking around with targets on our backs, just waiting for someone to come out of the woodwork and fire their arrows our way. I flinch even hearing my name yelled in public by someone trying to get my attention. 

One technique I use to bypass all the negativity and avoid burnout is to focus on the small, good things in life. There’s a Raymond Carver short story titled “A Small, Good Thing,” which features a mother and father whose son is hit and killed by a car on his way to school. The mother had already ordered a birthday cake for her son, and the oblivious, annoyed baker calls repeatedly to let her know the cake is ready. Finally confronted by the grieving parents, the baker apologizes for his callousness. He offers fresh-baked bread as “a small, good thing” and talks with them into the morning.

The story is ultimately about forgiveness, kindness and the healing power of human community — focusing on the power of “a small, good thing,” when confronted with life’s struggles.  

My girlfriend Cadie is great at reminding me of these. She’s great at everything, actually, including defusing my stress. One small, good thing we do is take a walk at Pine Street Woods or Round Lake or any number of places where we can stroll among the trees and listen to the birds. I don’t owe them anything, and I love that.

Another small, good thing is driving out to do some piddling work on the sailboat I own with a friend. I’ll listen to a podcast or some tunes while driving to the marina, passing the quiet farm houses and flower stands along the way. Once at the boat, I’ll listen to the eagles chirping from a nearby nest and be lulled by the sound of the water lapping against the hull while performing some trivial task that doesn’t really need to be done.

Another small, good thing is running into a familiar face you haven’t seen in a while and catching up on the sidewalk or at the post office. It seems there are so many faces I don’t recognize anymore.

Calling Secret Thai to order my weekly meal and having the owner Lyn recognize my voice is another small, good thing. Or receiving an invitation to sail across the Atlantic Ocean from someone who read in the paper that I always wanted to sail in the open ocean. Or being invited to someone’s home to see their collection of books and antique typewriters — not for a story, just because they thought I’d enjoy it.

There are countless small, good things. A quiet Monday morning snowboarding at Schweitzer. A spring day canoeing the Pack River. The genuine smile of a barista or the sound of Zach’s kids laughing as they run around playing some game in the backyard that his family shares with Cadie.

Life is hard, but don’t let it beat you down. Focus on the small, good things. They’re out there, waiting behind every corner, ready to bring a smile to your face again.

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