It's not the really horrible calls, I tell people. Yes, there are the ones that stick with me, that play on interminable loops in my waking mind, images of violence or death in which, like the worst of nightmares, I can do nothing to change the outcome. They can be difficult, but years of experience have prepared me to deal with them. I give the ghosts lease to haunt me for a time. They hover around me, and for a time everything I see is greyed and indistinct behind their veils. Then they make a mark on me, a faint scar, and move onward. It's not those calls that abrade and bleed the soul.
No, it's inhabiting the firm foundation of misery that undergirds our world, the daily contact with daily suffering in which I'm just a witness, a bystander, curing the most acute symptoms without addressing the source of the malady. All of it, of course, is abetted by the enshrined cruelty of laws and systems that make it practically criminal to be poor, and a culture that's so invested in the myth of social mobility that its people believe the poor prefer to live in abject poverty out of an extravagant laziness.
It's the driver who, as traffic parts to make room for the screaming siren behind them, pulls into the open space to leapfrog several car-lengths ahead, slowing a victim's trip to the emergency room. Someone who is incapable of placing a stranger's desperate needs above their own for the twenty seconds needed to allow an ambulance to pass. That's what makes me flee to the mountains for a little while, when I can, to heal my faith in... anything.
This time I took two familiar friends, my dog and A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin, probably the first book that ever blew my young mind.