Life is not about happiness . . .
Life is not about happiness . . .
Every week it seems we’ll be standing at a scene — fire, crash or a medical call — and a firefighter will shrug and say, “Life sucks and then you die.”
It’s part just firefighter stoicism and little bit of “seen it all.” But it remains my favorite summation of firefighter existential wisdom. It plays to our natural perspective of going dark first. And yet, firefighters are not by nature dark people. The aren’t wandering the streets, moaning about problems or the futility of life, or that life has no meaning…
Rather, they just accept life for what it is. Which is why when someone says yet again, “life sucks and then you die,” the rest of us usually smile and nod. Because we know what it really means:
“Life is being born and loved by your parents, first crush, having a sister die, grieving, falling in love, having your heart broken, breaking someone’s heart, doing work that you like, being fired, being overlooked, getting married, getting divorced, being depressed for a year, getting married again, watching your kids come into the world, falling madly in love with your kids, being told you’re not good enough, being told you’re the one, being with your kids as they grow, being away when they need you, having your heart drop holding a sick child when a doctor shakes her head and says it’s Leukemia, being in the mountains, being by the sea, leaving a job you hate, losing all your confidence, losing all your money, getting angry, getting drunk, being ecstatically happy for no reason. Finding work you love. A friend dies of cancer, grieving, the burning feeling in your legs after a long run, having happy kids, having a depressed child, comforting your kids, watching them have a first crush, laughing with friends, holding a child who was dumped, or fired, or kicked out of school, comforting your parents, losing your way. Laughing with your dad. Watching him die, watching your mom slip into dementia. Going to weddings, dancing at a wedding. Getting drunk at you dad’s wake. Seeing grandkids, being in love. Forgetting the name of the woman you’ve lived with for forty years. Standing in the middle of a grocery store wondering where you are. And then you die.”
This, my friends, is what is truly meant by “life sucks and then you die.” It’s not all dark, it is all shades of color and light. But it is a ride down the rapids and over the falls. All at the speed of life, which is slightly slower than the speed of light.
We have a choice. We can go dark, lose our courage, lose our way and think, “please just get me safely through all this to my death!”
Or, we can see this as a miracle (however you take the word miracle to mean). We are alive and we are here. For a blink in time, living, thinking, loving: We are here!
I was standing next to another soccer coach watching our high school team do sprints on a windy and cold October afternoon. This often happens when we’ve run out of stuff to do: Make them run!
While they were off, the other coach leaned towards me and said, “I think part of our job is to teach kids pain: what is real pain and what is just being uncomfortable? I don’t think a lot of them know the difference.”
Almost without knowing it, athletes learn to be physically and emotionally tougher. They are then able to perform at a higher level and thrive through challenges that would daunt most non-athletes.
Being tough is a requirement for being a competitive athlete. A 16-year-old soccer player reminded me of this a few years ago. Halfway through a game, he came off the field after being kicked in the nose. His nose was split open and his face was covered in blood. He had a laceration from the bridge of his nose to the tip. I thought, “well, he’s done for a couple weeks.” Our trainer took him aside and used butterfly bandages to close the laceration.
Five minutes later, he was standing by me. Swollen nose, still a little bloody, covered with bandages. “I’m ready to go!”
I said, “No you’re not, you’re done!”
He replied, “I’m fine coach, please let me play!”
So I did. He went back in, played the rest of the game, scored two goals.
I’ve thought about that moment and its message a lot. On one hand, we naturally want to protect kids. On the other hand, one of the most important lessons that comes from the playing field is that you have to be tough; you need the ability to endure pain, suffer setbacks and not fall apart when things don’t go your way.
Why is this important? Because life, even our first-world comfortable life, requires the same thing: We need to be tough.
It only takes year or so on the Fire Department to see this is true. Dealing with the sudden cardiac arrest of your husband, a cancer diagnosis of a loved one or watching your house burn to the ground. These can be shattering moments.
But here is the irony. In these moments, we don’t have a lot of choice other than to be tough. We can fall on the ground, wail to gods or the universe, complain and point fingers. But none of that will help. Ultimately we have to get up and deal with the problem. We need to be tough.
We are born-again Christians, ministers, ex-military, gun-toting NRA guys, lawyers, artists, contractors, Republicans, Independents, Democrats, the uber-liberal, gay, straight, radical feminists, and what I am sure was the only anarchist-socialist-atheist firefighter in the state.
Yet for decades, we’ve been close as a department. Even in the last few years, when the country seems to be tearing apart, we take care of each other. We enjoy being together and know we are serving — together — an important purpose.
It is the work that bonds us.
Standing there in the middle of that chaos of the motorcycle-truck collision, with people yelling and body parts strewn across the highway, Greg and I knew we had to solve this together, we had to go through this and come out the other side with each other. These are among the most honest and ruthless moments humans can share.
They are honest because in those times we are vulnerable and scared. They are ruthless because the decisions we make together in those moments are life or death — save someone or watch them die.
It is not simply a catch phrase that firefighters think of the vocation as a Brother and Sisterhood.
Sheila and I walked up to our engine, grabbed SCBAs 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 we generally 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 he/she is trained to do. Years of practice, experience, knowledge and mentoring reduce what we perceive as the risks. We 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 need to call upon. In a sense, civilization is designed so that we don’t have to use heroic courage (for better or for worse).
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.
Physicists like to talk about the rules of the universe. For example, you can’t exceed the speed of light or go back in time.
I submit for us there are also universal rules that we need to accept as humans.
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 and being brave in our own lives; we have the opportunity to train and to work at being braver every day.
Think about it: Every day 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 to be bored. Sing in public. Refuse to be silent. Live every day as large as you possibly can.
In acting brave every day, in dealing with our fears head on, we become a little braver and a little 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.
Let’s start with the story of Ed. Ed was a new firefighter, in his fourth month with our department. At this particular training Ed was working the panel on Engine One for the first time. He got the signal from our chief, opened the valve and charged our big three-inch line.
Ed, normally a taciturn guy, punched his fist in the air. “This is the best job ever!”
At the time, Ed was sixty-eight years old.
But here he was, joyous as a child. It wasn’t just because he had opened a valve on an engine and flowed water (granted that’s fun!). For Ed, there was something larger. I talked to him later — after twelve years on the department — and he told me the reason he became a firefighter was to give back, to help others, to have meaning in his life.
In one of the last speeches my father Larry Wilson gave,
he reminded the gathered that it wasn’t death we should fear.
He said, “Did you forget that you too are going to die?
We’re all going to die. It’s pointless to fear it.
Instead we need to be terrified of not living.
What stops us from living? Fear. How do we overcome fear?
We need to be brave. How do we find our courage?
By creating meaning, a reason to be here, knowing that
we are making a difference.”
Creating meaning in our lives can reframe our entire existence. That’s what Ed knew, it’s what my father taught and it is vital to understand if we are to thrive in our tragic-joyous-hard-miraculous lives.
For volunteer firefighters, it is the meaning this vocation brings to our lives that keeps us going year after year and decade after decade.
For example, one morning, at a restaurant having lunch, all our pagers went off simultaneously: “Hondo, wildfire, Nine Mile Road.”
We all jumped up together and went for the door. I quickly paid the bill. As we left the waitress said to me, “Wow, you all look so happy!”
Logically, it makes no sense that we looked happy. Fighting a wildfire is nothing but hard, slogging, smoky and long work. We would be climbing up and down terrain with shovels, axes, and water bottles with a 20-pound shelter on our back for hours.
This is the work that my grandfather, a World War I veteran of the trenches, told me to avoid like the plague. Yet we were happy. Because at that moment in time, we were driven by meaning; it wasn’t just hard and slogging work, it was the hard work needed to save homes and save lives.
Meaning answers the questions: Why am I here?
What is my life about?
Creating meaning is easy for firefighters —
although the vocation can be difficult.
Every day the pager tones out a cry for someone
who needs help. Every day we get to concretely
fulfill our reason for being here.
But what about normal, “first world” life? In our busy, competitive world? Family, work, kids, house, money, security, ambition, vacations, parents, college, retirement, recession? How do we create meaning in our lives when all of these are competing for our most precious commodity: our time? Doesn’t something have to give? The answer is probably yes — there is no rule that says this way should be fair or easy.
And yet, if at the end of days we find ourselves asking
the question, “What have I done today that made a difference?
Why am I so depressed, tired, feeling useless?”
The answer is often that we need meaning in our lives.
It’s not complicated or esoteric. There are principles that we need to absorb. The first is that a meaningful life is not about “me.” It’s about other people. It’s about serving, taking care of, and building a better world for others. It requires what most spiritual practices consider the shift from “me”-centered to “other”-centered. On the Fire Department, for example, the shift comes when firefighters are no longer motivated by, “Cool, I’m a firefighter and I love adrenaline!” and become driven to do the very same job because they want to help people in need, even the drunks, even the addicts.
Next, and this is sometimes a life changing idea: we need to do our important work. If you want to build meaning in your life and your time is consumed by work that you deem not important, then you need to find different work.
We may have to work to make money. But we “make our living”
by doing our important work. Again, this is not an easy path.
Having a life filled with meaning, doing important work in
service to others, may require trading security for a bit of an adventure.
On the other hand, who knows where doing your important
work might lead you?
A final note. When my dad and I wrote Play To Win, also a book about meaning, in some ways we let readers off the hook. Of course, we wrote, there are times when you simply have to work to make money or you’re so busy . . .
Since then, I’ve learned there is urgency here. We are not meant to be doing dull and unimportant things. Life is too short. We live in a world crying out for help: Right now and all around us.
As important, it is a meaningful life that is the path to true joy. It is in serving others and doing your important work that ignites the experience of profound happiness.
But that’s for my next blog. As always: be brave, be kind, fight fires.