Calling is a big word.
It implies a lifelong commitment to a cause, a belief.
It may be a profession or a mission you feel so passionate about that you would lay down your own life in the course of fulfilling your responsibility to finishing that work.
Personally, I have never ever thought of my previous career as a TV journalist -- a calling. Passion -- yes.
I love telling real life stories, and would happily respond to the call of duty.
I have had my share of assignments in war-ravaged regions from Vietnam, Cambodia to the United States. The closest I came to losing my own life was on September 11, when I was reporting from Ground Zero for NBC News.
"Is this it?" I remembered asking myself that dire question after getting pushed to the ground during the pandemonium, with my face down while getting kicked in the head, neck and ear. I was prepared to die having just witnessed the whole 110-floor building collapse just five blocks away in front of my eyes. But somehow my survival instincts kicked in, and I got up running for my life.
No, I didn't want to die.
I suppose no journalist want to die even if they see their work as a higher calling.
But the question is -- are they willing to die for their calling in the line of duty?
Whatever your calling is -- is it worth dying for?
I've been quite obsessed with this question for the past week. Why?
I was profoundly moved by the unbelievable sense of calling that drove American journalist James Foley to Iraq, Libya, Syria -- again and again -- until his horrific death. By now, we've all heard about the beheading of this intrepid war correspondent by the insane ISIS (Islamic State Militants in Iraq and Syria.)
For me -- the image is still vivid -- a man looking gaunt yet defiant, in an orange jumpsuit on his knees toughening his resolve next to a masked executioner standing with a sword.
The headlines -- still haunting -- "Video Appears To Show Beheading of Journalist James Foley -- Who Went Missing in Syria"
No, I did not watch the video. No one should watch it because it was a barbaric act of savagery and cowardice. It glorified evil and distorted the truth.
The wall-to-wall news coverage in search of the truth behind the horrific killing revealed many aspects of James Foley's life. The most striking was his absolutely selfless sense of calling that is admirable, thought-provoking and soul-stirring.
James Foley was raised in a Catholic family in Rochester, New Hampshire with values of compassion, courage and empathy in service of others. He did not care about money, power or fame when he first started his career as a teacher and mentor for underprivileged children. He later became a journalist to report on what he called "ground truth" in conflict zones after feeling inspired by his younger brother who was serving in Afghanistan.
"I have never been prouder of my son. He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people." Jim's mother Diane told the press the day after his killing.
But her pride was preceded by doubt. She recalled a kitchen table conversation with Jim three years ago when he returned home safely after being held hostage for 44 days in Libya. He wanted to go back, but she was exasperated.
"Why do firemen keep going back to the burning house? He's motivated by what he thought was doing the right thing -- it's what gave him energy. He's not crazy." Jim Foley's father told reporters who were baffled by Foley's return to the battlefields.
I can understand the difficult and dangerous job of first responders in saving lives and putting themselves in harm's way. But battlefields fueled by ideological radical zealots are different. They are messy because kidnappers, killers, friends or foes are unpredictable extremes. And so I wonder...what was Jim thinking? Did he think he was invincible?
After his release from captive by the Qaddafi loyalists in 2011, James Foley told an audience at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism:
"It's part of the problem with these conflicts. ... We're not close enough to it....
The honest fact is that when you see something really violent, it does a strange thing to you. It doesn't always repel you," he added. "Feeling like you survived something, it has a strange sort of force that you are drawn back to."
No editor sent James Foley to Syria, but at age 40 -- he got there on his own. Once there, he pitched stories to GlobalPost.
When I read about that, I was troubled by his desire to dig in deeper and deeper.
I was not alone.
While his knack for getting in close to interviewing local residents traumatized by war and suffering has won him admiration from his colleagues and boss at Global Post, the president of GlobalPost Philip Balboni said, "we wished he had not put himself in harm's way another time." His remark made me wonder...did that hostage survival experience give James Foley a false sense of invincibility or a true sense of inevitability that he had to get closer and closer to the darker and darker force that finally killed him?
We might never have the answers.
But last Sunday, I might have gotten as close to the answers as anyone's guess when I attended a special memorial service at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church to mourn his death and honor his life. The answers I believe, may well lie in his pure innocence and courage to discover and report the ground truth -- no matter how ugly the truth, how high the price.
His fearless boundless compassion has moved not only me but also hundred others who don't know him, to travel the distance and pay our respects.
In contemplating whether your calling is worth dying for -- it inevitably must involve an open and on-going conversation with yourself, with your family and loved ones.
What's your work and life worth to you?
What is your calling that would make you and your family proud yet requiring your going all the way... to the finish line?