Last week, when Oregon’s fire marshal abruptly quit his job in the middle of the biggest wildfire disaster in state history, many of us wondered what could have happened. Did he make some inappropriate political remark, maybe? Or gross incompetence? Apparently it was nothing of the sort.
Disclaimer: I’m not a journalist, and I know nothing about this story beyond what I read in yesterday’s local newspaper. The front page story says that on Thursday, an employee came to the fire marshal, Jim Walker, distraught because a relative was missing in Santiam Canyon, a zone where the fires had killed at least five people. Walker volunteered to help, and on Thursday evening he and a person who knew the area went looking for the missing relative and their family, eventually locating most of them. On Friday, Walker’s boss, the state police superintendent, said that Walker had overstepped his role and put him on leave. He then resigned.
Walker says he knew his employee was distracted by the situation, and that he’d cleared his search with someone he believed had the authority to do so. His motivation was to alleviate his employee’s concern, so that the employee could better “focus on the task at hand.”
I was immediately reminded of one of my favorite philosophers, Martin Buber. He once told a story of a deeply unhappy student who dropped by to talk with him, and Buber was too distracted to give the man his full attention. Here’s how he described it:
“I had a visit from an unknown young man, without being there in spirit. I certainly did not fail to let the meeting be friendly, I did not treat him more remissly than all his contemporaries who were in the habit of seeking me out about this time of day as an oracle that is ready to listen to reason. I conversed attentively and openly with him – only I omitted to guess the questions which he did not put. Later, not long after, I learned from one of his friends – he himself was no longer alive – the essential content of these questions; I learned that he had not come to me casually, but borne by destiny, not for a chat but for a decision. He had come to me, he had come in this hour. What do we expect when we are in despair and yet go to a man? Surely a presence by means of which we are told that nevertheless there is meaning.”
The student had gone off to war (the first World War) and apparently put himself deliberately into harm’s way (the wartime equivalent of suicide-by-cop). Buber was horrified – the young man had come to him for help, and he hadn’t given it. He went on to devote his entire career to his belief that giving someone your full attention and commitment when they come to you in need is our highest obligation. (If you’re interested, I recommend his most famous book, I and Thou, but be warned – it’s a bit like reading poetry, but harder, and then harder still.)
Assuming the newspaper version of Walker’s story is correct, his story sounds a lot like Buber’s – and Walker made the choice Buber wished he’d made with his student. It’s unfortunate when doing the right thing costs you your job.
(Buber quotation source: Between Man and Man, p.13-14.)