a photo by «daveB» on Flickr.
Why, then, would some people choose careers like firefighting, law enforcement, or the military, where personal survival is not a foregone conclusion? They step into harm's way as a matter of course to ensure the safety and survival of other people. They work long shifts, long past exhaustion. And they do so without huge financial compensation, sometimes without even a perfunctory thank you from the very people that they helped.
There are individuals in which core values transcend everything, and they turn Maslow's Hierarchy upside down. Their concept of authenticity and meaning (the highest level need, self-actualization) includes putting themselves and their personal interests aside on behalf of a greater purpose.
When individuals are expected to put their own needs aside to do their jobs day after day, it becomes crucial that they are able to stay connected with a larger purpose. The connection is more easily tapped in some individuals, who will strive forward because of a completely internal drive to contribute in a selfless manner. But even for those people, the subordination of basic individual needs on behalf of a greater good can take a toll. Even when they love what they do, it's hard.
Now for a brief soapbox moment: it's really important to take opportunities to thank these people for their contributions and their personal sacrifice. They see people and circumstances at their worst, and they persevere even though their jobs are physically demanding and emotionally wrenching. To the first responders out there helping people rebound from Hurricane Sandy, thank you. We are noticing your dedication and we value your contribution to our communities.