It certainly seems that the world keeps upping the ante on terribleness, doesn’t it? Yet another Black person is shot by the police, California is burning, the Republican National Convention shines a spotlight on the decline of liberal democracy — at least the murder hornets have kept to themselves, so far as we know.
A few months ago, badass Kate Greer wrote a Medium article entitled Giant Dumpster Fires Everywhere, in which she pointed to the flaming mess that was surrounding us. But she also pointed to the kind of reckoning that something as obvious and dangerous as a fire can force: if our neighbor’s house was on fire, she asks, wouldn’t we try to help? Wouldn’t we turn toward the flames and act?
The sad truth is that many of us wouldn’t. And the more complicated reality is that in some cases — like, in the case of actual raging forest fires — we shouldn’t. We should, instead, evacuate and literally run for our lives.
But Kate’s advice still holds, even in a time when some might need to turn away from the fire, for their own safety or sanity. Turning away from the fire needn’t mean turning away from each other. We can protect ourselves and protect others. We don’t need to be conventional first responders in all crises — we don’t need to be the heroes racing toward the fire with axes and hoses. We can be responders in other ways. We can provide care. We can nurture. We can act on our compassion. We can provide water for the human spirit.
Care, nurture, and compassion aren’t things that we usually associate with heroism. But saving the world, contrary to what Marvel tells us, doesn’t really happen through archetypal heroics. It happens through humanity. While the literal fires are being fought with tools and muscle, the only thing that forestalls or puts out the bigger but more figurative fires is the active engagement of our own humanity: the collective exercise of our compassion, our vulnerability, our curiosity, our capacity to care, and all of the so-called ‘soft skills’ and practices that we usually code as feminine (and, not coincidentally, that we usually code as weak).
Again, the types of fires that are consuming much of California do require tools and muscles and sometimes even Marvel-scale human bravery to overcome. But other fires threaten to burn not our belongings or our bodies, but our spirits, and those fires need to be fought with the heart. Which is not to say that we can or should reduce everything to an abstracted and ineffectual ONE LOVE message — engaging our humanity absolutely requires action. That action, however, isn’t the individualized, savior action of the hero: it’s the collective action that is catalyzed when we engage our hearts and minds together.
Perhaps this means that we need new narratives about heroism, or that we need to start interrogating our celebration of the traditional hero’s journey in storytelling, whether it’s in the stories that we tell to entertain ourselves or the stories that we tell to explain the world to ourselves. Perhaps it’s both, and more. Whatever those new narratives might be, they need to accommodate a more nuanced picture of power, one that recognizes the force of the connected, caring, compassionate human spirit.
We’re already creating those narratives, just by showing up and actively caring about the world. We’re already providing water for each other. Let’s keep doing that, and let’s not forget to provide it for ourselves.
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