a fire that sounded like a roaring freight train, some people would not get out. Wildness comes with a price.
Like Mark Twain and riverboat captains, firefighters see the world differently.
At parties I now listen to people marvel at how beautiful a home is and I think, “How would we get an engine up the narrow and winding driveway?” I want driveways to be short, wide and plowed. Where would we park our supply engine? How would we get water to the fire? Why would you build a house ten miles from a hydrant?
Now Laurie and I walk away from amazing mountain houses saying to each other, “We’d never live there,” because the fire risk is so high. By high risk, we meant not only was a home surrounded by “fuel,” but it sat uphill facing the prevailing winds with only a one way out.
Being a firefighter changed how we saw things in other ways. I look at narrow staircases and think, “How would we get patients down from an upstairs bedroom if they’re in cardiac arrest? Who ever invented those cast-iron spiral stairways? What were they thinking?”
Landscapes, homes, driveways and staircases become obstacles to overcome, like snags in the river.
And then there is this: waking up the morning after a long night and a horrible call and hearing the woman next to you breathing, and looking out on the extraordinary sky of early morning, not yet light, but not dark. It’s a morning like any other, but through the firefighter’s eyes, it is the miraculous.
Life and death haven’t changed, our perception has.
My father once said, “Put on a new pair of glasses and you’ll see.”
“Put on a new pair of glasses and you’ll see.”
He wasn’t talking about bifocals.
He was talking about changing how we look at things, seeing the world differently from new perspectives. Almost by definition, this means that we are constantly letting go of cherished beliefs and the familiarity of landscapes and thought-scapes as we see things differently. The romantic river becomes a path of commerce full of obstacles and tough to navigate. The forest becomes tinder ready to ignite.
The ordinary morning becomes miraculous.
At its root, becoming a firefighter is putting on a new pair of glasses. It sharpens the vision of life, fragility and time. You see the universe differently.
As it is with rivers, forests and mornings, it is also with our very perception of life and the universe.
We look up at the night sky and see stars. A cosmologist sees through a different pair of glasses and sees stars, galaxies all accelerating away from us, away from the Big Bang. The cosmologist time scale is billions of years. They puzzle about an infinite universe, multiple universes and dark energy. Ask them, “How did the big bang happen?” They’ll shrug and say, “We don’t know yet.”
We walk through the mountains and see the breath-taking and seemingly immutable cliffs and peaks. A geologist on the same walk sees in her imagination the tumultuous past that formed the mountains and the relentless pull of gravity and erosion that are tearing them down. We see ourselves and say this is “me.” And yet a micro-biologist, with a different pair of glasses, looks at us and sees that me is not just me, but 90% of “me” are cells, microbes, with different DNA.
We walk through a garden and see flowers and color. A botanist sees the constant competition and cooperation for resources that is the driving force of evolution.
We believe that we are the “the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals,” in Shakespeare’s words, or in Catholic theology: “in imaginem dei” (made in God’s image). And yet an evolutionary biologist, seeing us quite differently, will tell us that we are also just clever and highly adapted apes, focused as much on survival and reproduction as we are in understanding the world and universe we inhabit.
It all depends on the glasses we are wearing.
I often think about Mark Twain’s first trip down the river as a pilot. How quickly it must have occurred to him that his beliefs about the river were romantic illusions and the actual river was much more complex, more interesting and mysterious.
And so it us with all around us. But it takes that different pair of glasses to see. Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
There are so many more things in heaven and earth. They are mysterious, unexplored and maybe inexplicable. But to understand what we can, we must continually let go of our illusions about rivers, forests and even the universe. We must always be willing to wear a new pair of glasses and then embrace being astonished.