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Burn Bright, Don't Burn Out

To create positive change, be a campfire—not a forest fire.

'Zoe Weil'
Source: 'Zoe Weil'

There’s a metaphor I like to use when talking to fellow activists and solutionaries. I ask them to imagine two fires.

The first is a campfire. The fire is warm and bright, and people are drawn toward it. Their beautiful faces glow in the reflected light. There is nowhere they’d rather be.

Now picture too much fuel added to this fire. A spark flies igniting a tree. The fire begins to burn out of control, turning from a campfire into a forest fire. It is difficult to breathe, and everyone flees, desperate to escape.

What can we learn from these two images of fire?

We each have a fire inside of us. It is the fire of our passions and our beliefs, and those of us who are driven to be activists and solutionaries know it well.

It is the fire that spurs us to learn about what is happening on our planet — to people, animals, and the environment — and it is the fire that motivates us to challenge the atrocities that still exist in our world and solve the crises we face.

Sometimes our fire is blazing hot. Other times, if we've burned out, it is a barely glowing ember. (There is a reason for the word “burnout” after all.)

As people striving to be solutionaries, we have a choice about what sort of fire we will be.

Will we be the warm, welcoming campfire that draws people toward us so that we can share what we know, inspire others to make a difference, and build community to help solve our collective problems? Or will we be the forest fire that rages too hot, destroying everything in its path, so voracious that we cause people to run from us and harm ourselves as well?

This is one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves, because the fire we cultivate makes an enormous difference in our effectiveness as solutionaries.

As we know, fire is not static. Whichever fire you have been, or are today, is subject to change. Much depends on the fuel. Fires die out if we don’t add fuel. At the same time, too much fuel added too quickly can ignite an inferno.

We’ll know that our fire needs more fuel if we aren’t contributing in meaningful ways to positive change. We’ll also know that we need to control our fire if people start avoiding us because we’re burning too hot, too angrily, too dangerously, or if we burn ourselves out with pain and sorrow.

As someone who’s been trying to create a more just, humane, and healthy world for over thirty years, I share these thoughts from experience. I know that at times, despite my intentions, I still burn too hot. Sometimes I fail to communicate thoughtfully and kindly and am too aggressive in my speech and actions, consumed as I am by my own inner suffering because of the harm we humans cause in the world.

I’ve learned to temper my fiery nature by moderating my exposure to atrocities and balancing the seemingly endless fuel of bad news with time in the natural world, meditation, improvisational comedy, daily exercise, walks with our dogs, seeking out good news, and reminding myself that things can be bad and better at the same time.

Most of the time, I’m able to find balance, but not always. I know the frustration that can build when others don’t “get it;” when obvious and clear changes seem elusive even after decades of work; when people around me make lifestyle choices that perpetuate animal cruelty, slave and sweatshop labor, and environmental destruction. I know that I should hold my tongue lest people run from me, but sometimes I fail to wisely respond and instead quickly react.

There’s a famous Aesop Fable about the sun and the wind. The wind challenges the sun to a contest: who can get the person walking on the ground below to take off their coat?

The wind blows as hard as it can, trying to force the coat off, but the person simply wraps the coat more tightly around their body until the wind is defeated.

When it’s the sun’s turn, it shines as brightly as possible. Soon the person is wiping their brow and removing their coat. The sun - that fireball the perfect distance from Earth - burned just right.

If you, like me, want to create positive change in your community and the world and contribute to a culture with less prejudice, cruelty, and destruction and more kindness, equity, and compassion, then tend your fire carefully.

The world needs you to burn just right.

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