I’m writing this on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. I thought it was important to date this column because things are changing so fast!
I got up this morning, watched a snippet of the news, and then decided there was nothing I could do and that the best idea was to walk our dogs. They were nipping at my heels with excitement as soon as I put on my running shoes.
It was cold, but the rising sun was just beginning to warm the air. Walking out the door, the dogs were all in. There were a thousand smells, other dogs to bark at, and even a rabbit. Nellie, our eight-year-old Berner, took it all elegantly in stride. Maisie, our little but fierce terrier-chihuahua mix, really wanted to go after the rabbit. She strained at the leash, seeing herself as a wolf, even though she is all of twelve pounds.
Dr. George Sheehan, one of the early running gurus, wrote, “Never trust a thought come to while sitting down.”
I have tried to abide by that wisdom. When things are tough or seemingly out of control, I walk. The dogs are the best companions because they are so in the moment that it helps me keep perspective. I try to see the walk as they see it, the best part of the day, a chance to be outside on a beautiful New Mexico morning.
So we walked, and I let my thoughts ramble.
These last few days have been a reminder of one of the fundamental lessons the universe teaches: stuff happens. It doesn’t matter if we are rich or poor, liberal or conservative, or how busy or beloved we are: stuff happens. Mike Tyson famously said that everyone has a plan until they get into the ring and get punched in the mouth. Well, we just got punched in the mouth.
It happens out of the blue, often with little warning. To think otherwise, to believe that we are magically protected or that we have it all under control is an illusion. The dawning truth of the last few days is that we have little under our control.
I don’t think of that as troubling or depressing, it is just the way the universe works, and it is how life has worked going back forever. Wishing it were otherwise is like trying to wish away gravity.
All we can control is how we choose to respond to what happens. We can choose to be calm, while all around us people are hoarding toilet paper. We can choose to help others instead of obsessing about ourselves.
Even though we are “social distancing,” we can stay in contact with friends and relatives and help them stay calm.
We walked. Maisie tugged at her leash, eager for the next smell.
Nellie trailed behind, having been down this road a thousand times.
I thought about the other thing that crisis illuminates. We learn to really appreciate the now, this moment, this walk, knowing that the future (as it has always been) is uncertain.
A Zen story. A Zen monk is being chased by a tiger. He comes to a cliff and sees that the only way down is a large vine that trails down off the cliff into the fog below. The monk immediately begins to climb down the vine. To his horror, he looks up and notices that the tiger is climbing down after him. He looks down the vine and notices there is a boa constrictor, the largest one he has ever seen, climbing up the vine towards him. So a tiger above and a snake below. Then, he noticed on the vine a beautiful strawberry. He paused, picked the strawberry, ate it, and enjoyed it.
It feels as if we are surrounded by tigers and snakes, but we can also appreciate that at this moment, we are alive and well. We can enjoy the strawberry.
As we turned to go up our driveway, both dogs patiently waited for me to catch up. And I thought about one last thing, probably the most important thing that a crisis can teach us. That is to be kind.
A lot will happen over the next few weeks or months. We will be stressed and stretched. But through it all, we can be kinder to each other. We can take care of each other. We can remember that in times of trouble, we are responsible for each other.
Be Brave. Be Kind. Be Useful.
Shanksville, Pennsylvania is 1,694 miles from Santa Fe. It was the Shanksville Volunteer fire department — forty members, sixty or so calls a year — that first responded to the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 on 9/11. They found only fire, smoke, pieces of the airplane, and incinerated body parts.
The World Trade Center in Manhattan is 1,984 miles from Santa Fe. 343 NYFD firefighters climbed the stairs to the towers to rescue people, all to be killed when the towers collapsed.
On our department, Hondo VFD in Santa FE County, we have firefighters who have asthma or arthritis. We have firefighters who struggle with anxiety and claustrophobia. More than a few have anger issues. One has PTSD from Iraq. We have those who are struggling financially and have troubled relationships. We have old guys — even older than me — with stiff hands who struggle to get into gear at night. In short, we are like everyone, we are everyman (and woman).
The 343 were mostly in their thirties and forties. Some in their twenties, but more than a few in their fifties and even sixties. They were our age.
They were not Odysseus or Achilles. They were like us. Surely with many of the same afflictions.
That morning, life asked them a terrifying question, “are you useful?” 343 individuals, just like us, just like you, trained to be useful, prepared to help, said yes.
A while after 9/11, a younger firefighter asked me, “is courage something you learn, or is it something you’re born with?”
Without thinking, I responded, you learn it. Maybe my answer was a way to address the doubts inside me, the question I had. Had I learned enough, did I have the courage to do what the 343 did? Courage isn’t the absence of fear. Courage is the ability to climb those steps while you are scared, while you are praying that you won’t die.
Most firefighters don’t think of themselves as heroic. Although many begin the career enamored with the idea of being a hero, most don’t plan a heroic death. I’ll leave that to the Valhalla worshippers.
Most often, it is just all of a sudden, out-of-the-blue. There you are, life asks, and you have to make a choice. On the fire department, there may be a familiar hand on your shoulder. Or, on impulse, you put your hand on the shoulder of the firefighter next to you. There is work to be done, there are people who depend on us.
You take one step forward.
You learn this by absorbing it in your pores, surrounded by a culture, by brothers and sisters, who share common cause, who share history that reaches back to the Greeks. At that moment, maybe terrified, you think, I could not live with myself if I left my brothers and sisters down in a time of need. I could not live with myself if I didn’t do everything in my power to save someone. That’s the creed. You don’t know that it’s taken root in you until the moment life asks.
And, it is not up to us what life asks. It’s up to us to choose how we will respond.
Victor Frankl wrote of his experience in Auschwitz, “We need to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life–daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the task which it constantly sets for each individual.”
Most of us will not face a 9/11 and be asked, are you useful? But every day we are asked in smaller ways. Every day, all around us, people are suffering, people need our help, our kindness. Every day there are small opportunities to be useful.
So today, on the 18th anniversary of that terrible event, there will be memorials and moments of silence and meditation. There will be parades. Yet today, and maybe every day, the best way to honor the heroes of 9/11 is by “right action and conduct.” It is by being courageous ourselves.
The best way to honor the fallen is by being kind today. The best way to show that we are not afraid is to be useful.
We may not be Odysseus or Achilles. But we are here to live our lives large and heroically. We are here to take care of each other. We are here to take the lessons of the fallen and make the world a better place.
Be brave. Be kind. Fight fires.