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By Katie Marshall
Your house is on fire. You can only save 5 things from destruction. Which do you choose?
We play the fire game in college and work orientations to share things about ourselves with new people. “I would take my guitar because I love music.” “I would bring my phone charger because I am practical.” When fires are theoretical and potential damage is hypothetical, your brain has the freedom to choose logically and even artfully, in ways that allow you to introduce yourself, and even impress others.
But the real fires of life leave no such freedom. Besides, you never realize how little material things actually matter when your home is in flames.
This fire is a metaphor. But the damage was real.
What they don’t tell you in the fire game is that time is of the essence. Your choices are quick or they are burnt. Time becomes one of the things you bring with you, even though you never chose it.
It will take 5 minutes to end what we had been working on for almost 5 years. It must have been 10 seconds between you greeting me, “Hey babe!” and me saying “We need to talk” and another 15 to meet you in the guest room that we had only started to set up. We had only lived there for 1 month, been engaged for 11 and dated for over 4 times that long.
I will take exactly 1 week off of work to heal and get organized, but it will actually take me 1 year to feel even close to done and even longer to understand that healing is not a process that ends.
What they don’t tell you in the fire game is how the fire started. Perhaps if we knew the fire’s origin, we would choose our 5 items differently. You see, when someone else starts the fire, you can take anything with you and feel vindicated in your choices, even the dumb ones, like a Swiffer or DVDs. How were you supposed to make a better choice? You barely made it out alive. Who cares? You didn’t start it.
But when you start the fire, it feels like what you are allowed to bring with you is chosen for you: 1. Shame. 2. Guilt. 3. Doubt. 4. Excuses for leaving weddings early or not attending at all. 5. Loneliness.
(You will learn later that you are wrong. You will learn later that you can choose. But not yet.)
The first thing people will ask is, “Why?” Humans do not do well with mystery, and your choice to defy the norm will make them anxious. They will expect a dramatic cause. The real answer is so simple that it will frustrate them. It will now be your job to ease their anxiety by explaining in as much detail as you can get out before the tears start why you left. It will exhaust you. You will convince yourself that this pain is your penance. It will take you so long to realize you do not owe the right choice anything other than to make it.
Until then, you will create an elevator speech out of the hardest moment of your life. You will whittle down agony into the amount of time it takes you to get from the first floor to sixth. This will come in handy, when, four months after the fact, a co-worker actually joins you on the elevator and asks, “So, how was the wedding?”
There are some questions that do not have polite answers. You will try to create one anyway. There will come a day when you realize you are getting closer to forgiving yourself when your answer does not start with blaming yourself and putting him on a pedestal. It will just be the truth.
“He is a wonderful person, and I wish him nothing but the best. I didn’t want to get married. So I made the best choice for both of us. It was hard. It was the right thing to do.”
You will expect blame. People will surprise you with kind or neutral answers. Some will call you courageous. Some will nod slowly, politely. Some will have experienced something similar. Most will rattle off divorce statistics and how many people they know knew that they didn’t want to get married, but did anyway. “If only they were as brave as you,” they’ll say. Or – your favorite – “Good for you.”
You’ll hear it so many times that it will become a chant that haunts you in your most self-deprecating moments.
Good for you. Good for you. Good for you.
Your hands are stained with matchstick residue and all the things you promised. You think of nothing but the person you hurt. You think of the time you tried to change the wedding venue, two months before the date, because maybe if the venue changed, you would, too.
Good for you.
Your hair is burnt at the ends and your eyes are red. Smoke surrounds you and you forget how to breathe when certain songs come on, you can’t see which way to run when you see his friends at Homecoming, but good for you, you monster, you dragon, you deserve this. This is what you wanted, isn’t it?
You will live like this for a while: hearing the hope in what people say, almost agreeing, but always returning to charred remains in your head. You will refuse to accept that your relief does not make you a bad person.
You will learn the term “grief work,” which is a tool for the Type-A disaster victim that teaches you to feel the sadness coming and say, “I’ve got some grief work to do.” It allows you to schedule your heartbreak. Grief work gives you time to honor your hurt without guilt.
And you will do the work.
What they don’t tell you in the fire game is that while you get to know someone by what they choose to save from a fire, you get to know yourself after the fire.
You will rebuild.
You will find a silence that you have never known; a space that terrifies, then eventually comforts you. A bird flying for the first time, you will feel so very alone. You will pump your wings until it feels like they will fall off, because if you go fast enough, maybe you can outfly your decision. It will be your parents who help you see that it was your decision that enabled you to fly at all.
You will learn to appreciate your family in a way that makes you grateful for every sad night, every moment of discomfort. Your love for them will become your motivation to get up when you can’t remember how to buy your own groceries. Their love for you will shift from armor to open doors to text messages at just the right time to deep breaths to an echo. Their love will resound in the cave of your darkest fears. You are not alone. You are not alone. You are not alone. And we love you.
You will learn to feel proud of yourself. You will learn to sing love songs to yourself on long drives to places you’d never let yourself go before. You will find joy in learning about yourself from the inside out. You will dive, deep, into activities that bring you peace; the things that used to inspire arguments about how you spent your time will heal the wounds that his words inflicted.
You will learn to defend yourself from the harsh voice of blame that took up residence in you. You will call yourself Warrior when you look in the mirror until you are able to smile at your reflection. You will take chances, and never for granted. You will be so grateful that you get to live the life you’re living; even quiet weekends will feel like celebrations.
You will learn to fall in love with new cities by exploring them, alone. You will find magic in everything from selling your television to Tuesdays. You will laugh loudly and often. You will read again.
You will realize that you are not perfect. Neither was he. You will realize that neither of you needed to be then, nor now. You will find comfort in your humanness. You will hope good things for him, and mean it.
You will learn to understand Zen quotes shared on social media in tangible ways, like “We don’t lose anything we need,” and “Be gentle with yourself,” and “Go slowly, but do not stop.” When it comes to learning how to love yourself, you will not stop.
Small things will reveal themselves to you as encouragement and you will hold on to them, first like the balancing pole that a tight rope walker clutches on their first high rope walk, but eventually, like the air between your fingers; lightly. Small bits from movies will become battle cries. Lines from pop songs will mean more to you than poems.
You will learn to listen in new ways, especially to yourself. You will honor the instincts that saved you from the fire and you will make a new game out of following each one for an entire day. Some of these instincts (“Pay your rent today”) will lead you to an unexpected $100. Others will lead you to small things like Twizzlers or big things, like getting a cat, or bigger things, like asking for more responsibility at work and getting it. And succeeding.
You will learn how to take and give your own time. You will learn how to ask for help without apologizing. You will learn how to take care of yourself.
Your friends will not give up on you. They will give you space when you need it and come running when you need that too. They will check up on you. They will ask how things are going.
At first, you’ll tell them it’s fine. Then, you’ll tell them it’s terrible.
Then, after some time, you will share your celebrations with them, big and small. You will text them on Friday nights and tell them that you’re going to try painting, you just impulse bought a ukulele, you’re going to bed early, you’re going backpacking – and they will cheer you on each time.
You will be kinder than ever before, because you will understand that if you are not kind to others, you will never be kind to yourself. And you will want to be kind to yourself. You will learn to ask for other sides of the story or sometimes, not ask at all, remembering the grace of others who heard your story with understanding rather than opinion. You will thank others for their kindness. You will smile more than ever before. You will learn to encourage others to speak their truth because you understand its power; it changes everything. You will realize what it means to change everything.
You will learn that there is so much left to learn and you will feel excited by it, rather than embarrassed. You will let yourself fail. You will let yourself succeed. You will decide where you go from here.
A trial by fire is one where the guilt or innocence of the accused is determined by subjecting them to a painful task. This will make sense to you beyond explanation.
The truth about the fire game is this: when your house is burning down, and you only have time to save 5 things, the first thing on your list must be yourself.