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VIEWPOINT: Does our profession shape our lives?

By Renee Cuffe

We spend so much time doing what we do that I wonder what happens to our brains, how our chosen professions must change us. How would I be different if I had chosen another career path? I’m not talking about money; I’m thinking about things such as: Am I more empathetic — or less? Do I listen more closely to the people I love — or less closely?

I’m a professional listener. Year after year, I spend my days quietly taking in the intimate details of people’s lives. And I judge them. I am judge and jury. They are not people. They are stories. Am I hardened? A little.

When I come home, sometimes I need to talk after a day of being silent. Other days I can’t bear to hear the sound of a human voice.

Some days, I may be smug and self-righteous, and I may come home with a you-won’t-believe-this tale. Other days, I am humbled and grateful for what I have because bad things happen to good people.

Yesterday, I sat in a room, angry at a man who is probably actually very nice and well respected in his field. He wore a wedding ring, so I thought he might be a wonderful husband and father to someone.

But I hated him for the simple fact that no matter how many times I interrupted him, he continued to be exactly who he was: an expert in the field of water rights. A hydrogeologist. I wondered if his chosen profession, like me, has made him who he is. The terms he used were multi-syllabic and unfamiliar to my ear. I tripped over his acronym-filled blather that meant nothing to me.

He would lead off his pages-long diatribe strong and clear, and like a competitive runner, I felt confident about what I was about to do. I capture the spoken word with my ears, I thought to myself. It runs through my brain and flows out of my fingers to print, even as I’m planning dinner and winning imaginary arguments in my head.

But he was a swallower of words. His diction could best be described as a stage whisper, swallowing the words at the end of every sentence, which is fine for everyday speech, in a conversation where people finish each other’s sentences. But that’s not my job.

I wanted to say, “I see your lips moving, but if I don’t listen closely, it is just noise. Stop it.” As the testimony flew by, at times I wasn’t sure if I was missing words because I couldn’t hear them. And I don’t know if they are important or not.

Today I wake up with my back aching from sitting tensely in my seat and my neck stiff from being held so rigid. Even my eyes ache from the death stare I held for most of the day. I dread seeing his words again on my computer screen. Am I keeper of the record or a creative writer? He has made my life difficult. Today, I will make a mush-mouthed authority on aquifer transmissivity, the intricacies of Division 25, and spread-sheet analysis look good.

And by tomorrow, I will have forgotten this day and moved onto the next car accident, divorce, slip and fall, or contract squabble. Maybe I will hear about siblings who have hated each other for years or a nasty bit of workplace sexual harassment. Botched surgeries. Broken dreams.

I profit from others’ misery.

And I am still wondering, how am I different?

Renee Cuffe, RPR, is a freelancer based in Salem, Ore. She can be reached at