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Fires and Pandemics

On April 11 1978, I was one of 24 people made homeless by a fire that devoured our apartment building, forcing me to escape through the smoke and collapsing walls, floors and staircase. Safe outside, shivering in the cold night air, staring in awe at the flames ravaging my home, I realized that I had nothing — and yet everything — I was alive! Left with nothing, I discovered what many people do when we face catastrophic loss: we only learn to value our lives when we face the reality that it is fragile and can be taken from us at any moment. Then it is clear that simply being alive is enough.

The fire was the dawn of a growing sense of clarity, naturalness, and gentle presence. When I realized that the world I had both carefully and carelessly constructed had been destroyed by the force of nature, something beyond my control, I surrendered to the mystery and went with the flow of life. At the same time I realized that I needed to act in the world, without blaming my parents or society, but with self responsibility. I also sensed that my life was intricately connected to all other lives and that we could only make it by moving together.

Fire is a force of destruction but also of creation and purification. We can be engulfed in flames or on fire with passion and inspiration. The raw power of fire has been infused with prayer and reverence enriching our connection with the divine since ancient times. For me, the fire enhanced my spiritual practice by helping me purify and set intentions in my life. I believed that I was alive for a purpose, one that was uniquely mine to live.

The pandemic is like a fire that is ravaging our world. It preys on the vulnerable but no one is immune to its poison. We are all brutally reminded that ultimately we are not the only masters of our fate. More powerful forces exist and can take our health and our lives despite our best efforts to prevail. The pandemic forces us to break with our past, and present, and imagine the world anew. Many will perish but most of humanity will emerge on the other side.

What happens when we confront death and come out alive? There is no guarantee that we will be changed and we may come through still fearful, clinging to our old ways, escaping from freedom and falling into the seductive arms luring us with the magic of certainty and authority. We could choose to return to our sick normalcy, to the same deadly habits and destructive ways. But we could also be transformed, resurrected, reborn and live again. We could travel lightly, as I did after the fire, relieved of the baggage of the past, with beginner’s mind and heart, ready to imagine and create a new world together in peace and love.

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