Overcoming fear - Joel Hall

Pablo Casals, the famous Spanish cellist and conductor, preceded Yo-Yo Ma as the world's preeminent cello virtuoso. Until his death on Oct. 22, 1973, his skills on the cello were unmatched in the music world, and he had a long list of awards and honors to prove that.

Many people do not know that Casals struggled desperately with stage fright throughout his entire life. For a long time, nobody was better than Casals, but every time he made his way to stage, his palms became sweaty and his stomach tied up into knots.

I've listened to many Casals recordings, and it is amazing to me that someone with such flawless musical prowess could ever doubt himself.

While I am no Casals, either in music or writing, I recently found myself confronted by the same demons.

Recently, I found myself struggling to wake up in the mornings and do my job of being a journalist. I spent a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of restless mornings staring at my ceiling fan, dreading the tasks that were ahead of me.

There are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes of journalism that people who haven't worked in the media have no understanding of. Some of those things are wonderful and some of those things I wouldn't wish on anybody.

For one thing, a lot of people count on you, not just to do the work, but to get it done accurately and quickly -- all the time.

It's not like a lot of other jobs where you have an "in" box of tasks that can spill over into the next day -- if necessary. Ninety-five percent of the time, journalists operate in a state of now, and that's a lot of pressure.

There are many people who call and ask you to look into something, but there are many more who try to intimidate you into doing a story. Occasionally, I'll get ten phone calls and a slew of e-mails from a person with a particular ax to grind.

Those individuals attempt to rake the coals of what they see as investigative journalism, never realizing that we have to deal in absolutes, because the ultimate responsibility -- and liability -- of reporting a story falls on our shoulders, not theirs.

There's also the precarious tightrope that we walk with the public.

We have to know our sources, but not get too friendly with them for the fact that, at any time, we may have to write something unflattering about them. The very things that we are most passionate about are sometimes things that we can't have an opinion on, so that our fairness is not called into question.

There is also the great expectation that our writing will change the world for the better, somehow, when often, all we can do as journalists is highlight the problems of society.

Before I ever picked up a notepad and said that I wanted to be a journalist, I was a musician. I went to college and got a degree in performance, so I have a deep understanding of performance anxiety as it applies to the music world.

I never imagined that as a journalist, I would be confronted by the same issues.

It makes me think of all the people in history who were confronted by things that were bigger than themselves.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was only a year older than myself when he was asked to take over the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the 1950s. Solomon of the Bible was chosen over all of his older brothers to lead the entire kingdom of Israel. Nelson Mandela spent the majority of his prime imprisoned, but started a revolution from his cell that led the country out of nearly 50 years of Apartheid.

I am sure that all of those great leaders had many restless nights, but they were all chosen to lead because they had talents and gifts that applied to those areas. While nothing I do here compares to what they did, perhaps I have been put here for similar reasons.

It is easy to doubt yourself and to fear making mistakes, but a very wise man once said that an expert is only a person who has made every possible mistake in a very narrow field.

Whenever I feel the walls of anxiety closing in, I will remember that God has equipped me with the skills to do all that lies in front of me.

Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at jhall@news-daily.com.