a firefighter's plight

Art by Eliza Williams

Hey PheeBee, at the start of this year, I resolved myself to being a more intersectional and outspoken individual who would educate herself more on the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight for reconciliation with Australian Indigenous communities. However, I am finding myself mentally exhausted by the effort that education and empathy takes. Do you have any tips on how to maintain a fighting spirit when you aren’t part of the marginalised community that the movement is about?

 

Dear Emotionally Exhausted,

I totally get it! My anxious overly empathetic savoir complex is really showing up right now. 

Here’s how I spiral: SO MANY bad things are happening to people and it is SO unfair and I am just sitting here taking up space when people are dying and getting shot and the world is just on FIRE. And we are running out of water and I am running out of energy and now I have spun so much I need to unravel and there goes the whole day and I have done nothing but feel sorry for myself. What a waste!

I have been there. Many times. 

The world really is a little bit on fire at the moment. It seems you have decided to become a firefighter. HOT DAMN. Firefighters are HOT, I can’t wait to see you in (or out) of that uniform. However, being a firefighter that actually puts out fires is a lot. There is smoke, and soot and it’s hard to breathe. It’s hard to see. It’s also completely overwhelming walking into burning buildings. It is also disheartening realizing that the structures we lived in couldn’t protect everyone, they weren’t fireproof. This fiery truth enlightens us and burns us little too. 

Fire brings light, truth. This fire has illuminated a lot of things in the world. Truth can be hard to accept, especially if maybe we confirmed the strength of the burning breaking structure. Maybe we built some of it, believed in it too. Maybe sometimes we ticked yes on that housing scheme for our own convenience and ease – letting someone out to freeze. Now though, don’t look away. Let the proximity to the heat humble you, you don’t have it all figured out, you don’t have all the answers, or the whole truth and you don’t need to. We are not Prometheus, an overbearing god, here to “enlighten” or “civilise”.

Instead, look at the leftover ruins and listen. Let history whisper through the walls, they speak in many voices and languages, not heard before, familiar, so close, a mother tongue you once knew. The spoken for will whisper to you, they don’t have a home and when you have no lands, you live in your stories. 

We think fire is new, but it’s ancient, we have learnt to tame it before. Truths have been ignited before. Hear them  speak, and the fire will be tamed into a campfire, where they will tell you their stories. You’ll hear them whisper when you read their books. Read about how Malcolm X learnt to love his red Afro, how even after all the fame, he still saw himself as a street rat and those streets still loved him too. Listen to Maya Angelou “dance like I got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs”, even if “ You may write me down in history, with your bitter, twisted lies “ . Read how they took everything that life gave them and rebuilt beautiful powerful homes out of ashes. 

Take in that warmth, that wisdom, as you sit together circled by this light glow, wood of broken homes as kindling. Knowing that time is cyclical, and this has happened before. We will continue what other people brought to us. Torchbearers carrying on the truth.

Being on fire, the act of suffering, also makes you who you are. Don’t take it from me, take it from the people who have been there. We have all felt what is to be like to be burnt. Stings are part of the gig as a firefighter, but the people with burnt homes and lost loved ones have to rebuild their entire lives. Listening to them will build your resilience. You are not a survivor. You are a service provider. You do your work and let it go. Leave the shame and guilt at the door. Shame and guilt will paralyse you, and people with PTSD need you to act. 

I am still learning how to use my writhing fire hose, how to not create more chaos. I am still trying to not let my fear and guilt engulf me. And as you walk into these burning buildings, these broken systems, remember you have a mask, keep it on before you aid another with theirs. 

I look to these powerful figures to guide me, warm me, and remind me and I am a side character carrying their story. We carry water, they call the shots. Hear the shots fired and see what those sparks ignite. Truth will always show itself; fire will always bring the heat, whether it’s warming or burning. Listen and it will warm you, it won’t be easy, but we won’t be alone.

 Stay hot and close to the wise,

Pheebee