The calling of a journalist

Joel van der Veen
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Of all the scrawled signatures, well-wishes and wisecracks in my senior high school yearbook, the one I treasure most was penned by my English teacher.

In his classes, he introduced us to some of the greats of literature and poetry — George Orwell, Graham Greene, John Donne — and shared with us how a short story, a novel or a snippet of verse could overwhelm the reader with emotion or resolve.

He had read some of my work — the scrappy short stories I submitted, or my analysis of a Morris West novel — and must have caught a glimpse of potential.

At that point, I was weeks away from graduation, but already knew where I’d be heading in the fall: the school of journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto.

If I had the yearbook beside me now, I would transcribe the entirety of what he wrote. Since I don’t, I’ll simply repeat the key phrase that has burned itself into my memory: “Use your life to be altruistic.”

I never told him so, but I had to look the word up in the dictionary. “Altruism: the belief in, or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.”

Certainly, he knew the power of words, for his have stuck with me this long.

And while I’ve often failed to reach that goal, it is something to which I still aspire — part of my calling as a journalist, a Christian and a human being, I feel.

Each week, for the past 18 months, I’ve had the opportunity to use this space to share my feelings, thoughts and opinions with readers.

I’ve written on a variety of topics, from politics, faith and international issues to lighthearted subjects like breakfast cereal, Christmas movies and the comics page.

Some weeks, I’ll readily admit, my thoughts have been less than profound. I have developed a greater respect for columnists who have maintained schedules more demanding than this for decades.

I’ve appreciated the feedback I’ve received — both positive and constructively critical — and I’m thankful for every person who took the time to read my words.

From the start, I suspected that I wasn’t going to knock one out of the park every week.

And people who observed that I had certain pet subjects — “childhood memories and video games,” to quote one former colleague — would get no argument from me.

But I hope that my words here have served some purpose, whether it was to amuse, to inform or to inspire.

And I also hope that some of what I’ve written has served to challenge the reader — to make us think about the assumptions we hold, about why things are the way they are and how we can change them for the better.

Today’s column will be my last in this space, as I’ve decided to retire “The Dutch Touch.”

This decision isn’t due to a lack of things to say, or a lack of interest in saying them — but more a desire to pause and to spend more time listening and learning.

As I’ve mentioned before, six months ago I moved from the editorial department to our provincial production centre, where I design and proofread pages for multiple publications before they are sent to press.

My job and other responsibilities keep me busy enough, and retiring the column will help me strike a better balance between work, rest and play.

Of course, the hunger to write hasn’t gone away, and I trust that someday I will have the opportunity again.

When I do, I pray the calling will remain with me, to inspire every sentence that pours forth.  

Follow Joel on Twitter @ JVDV88.

Organizations: Ryerson University

Geographic location: Toronto

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