There are two fires that we have to encounter daily. The first is the fire of life, which reduces us to joy by burning away all that is false and not essential. This is the fire of aliveness that needs to be fed, no matter where we are or what we do. This is the light of the soul that must be kept burning. The second is the fire in the world, which can burn us up, which can wound us and damage us. This is the fire of circumstance that needs to be put out.
How do we know the difference between these two fires? I don’t know. I’ve been reduced to what is essential by the one and wounded by the flames of the other, more than once. Nevertheless, we need each other to know which fire to feed and which to douse, if we are to clear our confusions and establish enduring roots. Helping each other know the difference is part of the work of love.
Though we rightfully feel the rip and pull of everything taken away from us, being stripped of what covers us helps us grow—by lightening our load and making us more raw and naked, so we can be touched and transformed by the elements of life. This seems to be the promise of the inner world—that if we stay open to life, we’ll be cleansed of dead weight, worn of coverings that have served their purpose, and pruned of the tangle of falseness that grows like vines about everything.
Inevitably, we move through the first half of life gathering, only to enter the second half of life compelled to empty much of what we carry. Along the way, we gather knowledge, achieve a great deal, and save what we can. But under all our coverings, we long for the naked freedom of a star. Under all our accomplishments is a simple soul eager to build, not caring what it is we might build. And stripped of what we save and hoard, we grow immediate. This cycle continues: gather, build, grow covered by what we build, then burn away all that is not essential, so we can grow immediate, ready to build again.
In these raw, essential moments, we’re left with a life that has to live now, eager as a fish gulping for food at the surface. By gathering, we discover who we are, and by emptying, we get to throw off the world and be who we are. From such bareness of being, we enter a simple and substantial experience of life.
This brings us to a more compelling definition of destiny. Destiny is not a particular dream coming true over time for an individual, but the force of Spirit emanating into the world through all things including us. The emanation of Spirit is the counterpart to gravity. Like flowers that break ground in order to blossom, human beings are destined to bring their souls into the world. And despite the thousand things that can deter us, this can happen in a thousand and one ways.
Our ordinary destiny, then, is to accept the friction of being worn open by the world, so our soul can show itself and join with everything. The sensation of our soul showing itself and joining with everything is another name for joy.
Yet how can we discern between life’s fires when there are storms everywhere? It helps to stand still in the storm and listen for the truth, until we can hear voices more ancient and telling than our own. This takes a quiet fortitude. As the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) said:
As my prayer became more attentive and inward, I had less and less to say. I finally became completely silent… This is how it is. To pray does not mean to listen to oneself speaking. Prayer involves becoming silent, and being silent, and waiting until God is heard.
Listening this way, we can uncover what is true in the midst of that relentless and mysterious teacher, experience.
Still, living between the fire of aliveness and the fire of circumstance lands us in the middle of another paradox. While no one can live your life for you, we’re woefully deficient in the wisdom necessary to live, if left to our experience alone. Just as we can’t see unless our eyes are open, we need the experience and company of others to open our deeper mind, though we’re left to do the seeing for ourselves.
Though we’d rather be opened than closed, we’re constantly challenged to work with both. We’re given both because our call in being human is to reveal who we are by opening and closing repeatedly, just as we wake and sleep day after day. But how do we bear the tenderness after being loved or broken open? There are as many answers as lives.
If too open, we can become wounded and burdened. If too closed, we can become removed and untouchable. Most of the time, we tumble in the space in between. This is where we live, risking our way into authentic engagement, not watching life go by, but not burning up in the fire of circumstance, either. How? Who knows? This is the tension that everyone faces sooner or later: how to be touched by life without being consumed by its fire.
Throughout the ages, those damaged by the fire of circumstance early in their lives tend to see life as a fire to be put out. While those enlivened by the fire of aliveness early on tend to see life as a fire to be lit. Often these two will find each other—as lovers, friends, or colleagues—in order to challenge each other, to balance each other, and to complete each other. In time, the spiritual journey invites us to understand the powerful nature of both fires. The very sensitivity that can save us can also throw us under.
Vincent van Gogh is a poignant example of someone born with a godlike sensitivity, whose fire of aliveness roared through him into his paintings, while the same sensitivity allowed him to be consumed by the fire of circumstance. We each experience our own degree of godlike sensitivity, and one of life’s initiations is to learn how to make a resource of our sensitivity without shutting it down, how to use our sensitivity to get strength from what we know.
It’s humbling but true: we live between the kindling of dream and the fire of life. Confused, we often think the dream is where we’re going, and so miss the majesty of what the dream ignites. As Keats advised, we need beauty and truth to make it through life. And I would add love. Truth will help us douse the fire of circumstance when it sears us with its flames, and beauty, the way of seeing that rises from love, will help us keep the fire of aliveness from going out.
This is the tension that everyone faces sooner or later: how to be touched by life without being consumed by its fire.