This is my second post in a series what I’ve learned about living after twenty-five years of being a Volunteer Firefighter
Sheila and I walked up to our engine, grabbed SCBA’s and tools and headed up the driveway to the fire. It was a fully involved house, dark smoke was rolling out of windows, doors and the eves. The garage had collapsed and flames were barreling out where the roof used to be.
We walked up to our Chief, Jed, to get an assignment. As we watched, Dan, my best friend on the department, and a crew forced open the front door, got down on their knees and, hauling a hose line, crawled into the smoke.
Jed pointed to Sheila, “Second line in!”
He pointed to me. “Second 360. Let me know about exposures!”
Just then, we all heard a “Whumph!” The garage walls bulged out and a second column of smoke rose in the air. We all flinched, I ducked. Drums of paint thinner had exploded inside the garage.
Another day, another fire.
Dan and his crew made it out with no scratches. We fought the fire for another couple of hours and finally knocked it down. A typical fire: a few moments of adrenaline-fueled excitement followed by slogging hard work.
But this blog is about bravery.
Dan and his crew going into a burning house is what in general we call heroic bravery. Putting your life at risk to save someone. Now, every firefighter I know will also say that the act of going into a burning building is not necessarily heroic, it’s what they are trained to do. Years of practice, experience, knowledge and mentoring reduce what we perceive as the risks. We also know how to rescue ourselves if required and we know that there are other firefighters who will let very little stop them to save us if we need help.
Strangely to many, we also enjoy it.
But heroic bravery is not something that the vast majority of us, first world civilians, will need to call upon. In a sense, civilization is designed so that we don’t have to call upon our heroic courage. (for better or for worse)
But there is another kind of courage that we need daily, minute by minute in our lives: the bravery to accept life on its terms, with no illusions. To accept life for what it is and then get on with this glorious, miraculous adventure called being alive.
Here is what I mean. Physicists like to talk about the rules of the universe. For example, you can’t exceed the speed of light or we can’t move backwards in time.
I submit for us there are also universal rules and we need to accept them. First, accept that life is short and we will die. Second, that we are not in control. We can influence our lives, but we can’t control them. Uncertainty is baked into this cake. Next, and we see this on the Fire Department routinely, everyone you love is subject to the same rules. No one is protected. This is a hard truth, but a truth none-the-less.
Finally, for all we humanize it, the universe is an indifferent and immutable place. It doesn’t care whether we succeed or fail, live or die. It is not coming to the rescue. We are responsible for ourselves.
Accepting all of this and then getting on with living, requires bravery, the willingness not to collapse into nihilism or see life as meaningless.
This brings us back to Firefighters. Firefighters do things other people regard as brave. Why? Because they train, practice, know how to minimize risk and they take care of each other. They have experience in dealing with fires, big and small, and catastrophes. As a result, they are not often brought to their knees by the stuff that happens. They are able to continue to function and carry on.
Here is what I’ve learned: We are all capable of carrying on, of being brave in our lives and we have the opportunity to train, to work at being braver everyday.
Think about it: Everyday we can try, push, fail, start again, get up, speak, not quit. Speak even though your voice shakes. Tell someone you love them. Tell someone you don’t. Challenge ideas. Ask questions. Ask another question. Question authority. Enjoy being the challenger of the status quo. Why not? Don’t take the first, second or third “no” for the end of it. Try something new. Break habits. Go on a road trip. Go camping. Quit a job to feel that sense of freedom and terror all at once. Refuse ever to be bored. Sing in public. Refuse to be silent. Live every day as large as you possibly can.
In acting brave everyday, in dealing head-on with our fears, we become a little bit braver, a little bit more able to live life on its terms with no illusions.
Firefighters learn to be brave, it is what we expect of ourselves. As individuals, out in the big and dark universe, we need to expect the same of ourselves: Be brave.
Now, having written all this, what makes it all so much easier for firefighters is simple: they live lives of meaning. But that’s for my next post.