I’ve heard this term firefighter syndrome used loosely over the years, most often referring to people that have a tendency to want to rush in and fix things without thinking it through. Not suggesting that firefighters don’t think things through, but I’m sure you get the picture. You know, like the saying that if all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail? Similarly if everything you see looks like a fire then rushing in to put it out seems like the sensible thing to do. In fact, it almost seems like an inspired calling in life.
My experience with this mentality has been somewhat different though. For me, the fire represents an opportunity to be significant and the firefighter represents the one that seeks significance in a crisis situation. It reminds me of an incident a good few years ago in Cape Town. The famed fynbos on Table Mountain and surrounding areas had caught alight due to the recklessness of a smoker (no pun, just the truth) during the dry season. Their carelessly discarded stompie (a.k.a. cigarette butt) caused the fire to burn out of control for weeks, killing off acres and acres of fynbos and forests. A subsequent investigation revealed that the government agency responsible for managing forest fires in that area had routinely dowsed the flames from fires that started up over the years. Those smaller fires would have resulted in a natural culling of the density of growth, but by preventing it from self regulating, they created a perfect setting for a perfect brush fire. As a result, when the mother of all fires started, the rate with which it spread was beyond any expectations, and it burned out of control without anyone being able to contain it.
Too often we convince ourselves that it’s a selfless act to sacrifice our own comforts and well being to alleviate the discomfort or struggles of another. Sometimes that may be true, but most often, it’s not. Most often it is simply a form of escapism from our own lives. It’s easier to feel significant and celebrated when we contribute towards the upliftment of others, than it is to resolve some of the challenges that we are faced with. By focusing on the fires of others we achieve two key objectives. Firstly, we have a seemingly legitimate reason not to reflect on our own problems because of the constant busyness associated with being there for everyone else, and secondly, we provide a very meaningful distraction for them to avoid any opportunity to focus on us. Or more importantly, allowing them to see the mess of gaping holes in our lives.
Yes, there is merit in indulging in the upliftment of others, provided such indulgence is not an escape or deprivation of what we need for ourselves to be whole. Also, its merit only remains credible as long as we are convinced that the whole of us is not of more value to the world than the assistance that we offer others. This is especially true when we find that their cries for help are usually not much more than a variation of our own self defeating behaviours. While busying ourselves with helping others provides us with the distraction needed as described earlier, for some, reaching out for help to lift themselves out of their challenged state is their way of getting the affirmation needed to justify their weakness.
Consider it from this perspective. The one that is knocked over and finds that their dignity has taken an equal beating as their ego, will find that the shortest path back to a dignified state is found in obtaining the recognition from others that being overwhelmed under such circumstances is entirely understandable. It’s a vicious cycle of sympathy. The one recognises and relates to the weakness of the other because they would desire such sympathy and understanding if they were in a similar position, and the weakened one saves face by appearing downtrodden and therefore oppressed by the circumstances they find themselves in which appeals to our compassion for long enough to distract us from questioning the choices made by the victim that landed them in that state to begin with.
How does this relate to the firemen syndrome? I think it encourages a shared weakness in society that supports the abdication of responsibility for our contribution to the straitened circumstances we may find ourselves in. It also encourages the mentality of victimhood. That belief that we’re only strong if we have someone from whom to draw strength when we lack purpose or meaning in our lives. I think that is exactly what it all boils down to. When we lose sight of the value we wish to contribute to this world, or worse, when we lack such convictions to begin with, we look for opportunity to draw on the energies of others in ways to sustain our fragile ego without admitting such fragility.
Like the self regulating brush fire, if we constantly protect others from themselves by helping them up when they are entirely capable of standing up by themselves, eventually they will find no use for their own legs or their backbone, and we’ll find ourselves overwhelmed with the burden of having to maintain their fragility because of the unwavering support we provided that protected them from having to grow up.
Sometimes the greatest help we can offer is a clear view of reality, not a shelter from it. The more we invest in protecting others from reality, the more we limit our capacity to improve our own. Before you think this is a selfish way to live, consider who is more dependable in times of genuine need. The one who was protected from becoming a fully formed adult, or the one that has grown stronger and independent from the knocks that life has dealt?