Staying positive is a discipline

You do not need to abandon either your street intensity or your commitment to your physical survival in order to have a positive outlook on your chosen career

I wrote this article 10 years ago, however, I believe law enforcement officers need to read it now more than ever. I know things look tough right now, but the timeless philosophy I describe below was born in the mind of a prisoner in Auschwitz and it helped him survive. It carried me through my career and life. We will get through these difficult times as a nation not by standing down but by standing up with one of the most positive forces in history for keeping any nation free: American policing. — Lt. Dan Marcou

Most officers start their career as idealistic rookies ready to catch criminals and rescue people in distress. Inevitably, they’ll meet a cynical, time-scarred veteran who will tell them to “Slow know you can’t make a difference.”

That salty veteran may even add an observation like, “A career in law enforcement is like putting your hand in a bucket of water and pulling it out. When you retire no one will even notice you were here.”

Hold on with both hands to a little bit of your rookie idealism because that rookie was right: you do get to get to catch criminals and rescue people in distress.
Hold on with both hands to a little bit of your rookie idealism because that rookie was right: you do get to get to catch criminals and rescue people in distress. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

This will be the rookie’s first of many invitations to venture down the path of cynicism and negativity.

The negative path is available to all who enter a career where it seems that almost everyone you meet is a substance abuser, a social degenerate, or a criminal. The path of negativity and cynicism often seems the natural course.

Those who take this easy path toward relentless negativity and cynicism will discover it will not only negatively impact their career, but it also will negatively impact their family.

But it is possible to understand the natural pull down this path and still choose a different course by staying positive – trying to make a difference on every call, contact, or assignment you receive.

Officers can choose to develop the discipline to “stay positive” and even convince themselves: “I love this career! It’s important and I can make a difference.”

If an officer can hold that thought for about 30 years, that officer will more likely enjoy their career, their families and life in general.

Make no mistake about it, an officer, who travels down the path of negativity and cynicism, can still be a good police officer. This negative outlook, however, can impact their desire to engage in proactive policing and even their desire to train for their own survival. They often become resistant to positive change and ultimately their negative attitude will inhibit their ability to enjoy the career they have chosen and once even dreamed of. Negativity makes very good people miserable.

You can choose to aggressively hold on to a positive attitude. In doing so you will discover it will enhance your ability to make a difference in the lives of the people on your beat and the people you arrest. It will also enhance your contacts with recruits, veterans and the supervisors you work with, as well as the family who stand by you through it all.

Wisdom from Auschwitz

In a “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Jewish doctor Viktor Frankl describes his experiences in the death camps during World War II, including the time he’d been at Auschwitz. He discovered that in the midst of such horrible degradation and suffering, where a man is seemingly stripped of all possessions and dignity, it would have been easy to give up. He also noticed at Auschwitz that when people gave up, they died.

Frankl came to the conclusion that where internees found themselves immersed in a lake of despair, which seemed devoid of hope, there was something he still possessed that could not be taken away. This thought enabled him to survive. He said, “The last of human freedom is the ability to choose one's attitude given a set of circumstances.” Even though Frankl was a number in a death camp he was able to remain in his words “a free man.” He lived to achieve his goal, which was to someday tell the world about the Nazi death camps. He was afraid no one would believe that they existed, which would doom history to repeat itself.

Frankl said this, that can easily be applied to the attitude of a police officer: "What is to give light must endure burning.”

A terrible emotional toll can burn out the light of enthusiasm that glows so brightly from the beaming face of the new recruit.

A Conscious Choice

Make no mistake about it, staying positive in law enforcement is just as much a discipline as defensive tactics or firearms. An officer who manages to stay positive and survives the burning will discover it pays dividends at work and at home. If officers tell themselves, “It’s great to be alive,” and “It’s great to be a cop.” often enough, it becomes the absolute truth. When you really think about it though, it is the truth.

You have what Viktor Frankl described as a “response-ability” – you have the ability to respond either positively or negatively to everything that life hands you.

When followed, the positive career path will eventually lead to retirement. It will allow the officer to enjoy their career – while it is happening – because in a wink and a blink it is over. This officer, when looking back at that career with 20/20 hindsight, will realize they did make a difference one call at a time.

Emotional Body Armor

Avoiding cynicism does not mean the officer is not looking critically and skeptically at situations and individuals on every call. Give everyone your respect, but no one your trust.

You do not need to abandon either your street intensity or your commitment to your physical survival. When an officer decides to aggressively stay positive they have just recognized that there are emotional dangers in this profession, as well as the physical and legal perils. By adopting the determination to stay positive they have just slipped on some emotional body armor.

The path of positive, honorable policing can lead to a satisfying career. You can hang up your duty belt at the end of such a career knowing that you did make a difference, one call at a time.

You can choose to be angry, cynical and decide to retire on duty, but be forewarned, this will bring you little satisfaction and even less joy. An alternative is to tell yourself every day, “Law enforcement is an incredibly interesting and challenging career and I am blessed to have found a career like this to fulfill my life.”

What the heck, it can’t hurt.

Law enforcement will invite you to become as negative as the world the dispatcher sends you into call after call. Hold on with both hands to a little bit of the rookie idealism to the very end because that rookie was right: you do get to get to catch criminals and rescue people in distress. The pursuit of an honorable career in law enforcement can give great meaning to life. To have meaning in your life in itself is a great reward.

Stay safe, stay strong and choose to stay positive.

NEXT: 20 golden principles for prevailing on the street

This article, originally published 09/22/2010, has been updated

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