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.
Finding Your Own Way
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.
An Outward Focus
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.
Your Work Matters
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.