firefighters spraying a hose

Another Near Enemy of Compassion: Firefighting

The Buddhist concept of near enemies has been a very helpful tool for me in recognizing the many ways the mind can play tricks on us, despite our best intentions. I’ve written about near enemies of mindfulness, enlightenment and compassion in the past. Some recent news made me think about another potential near enemy of compassion – something we might call firefighting. I’m not referring the dangerous and heroic work volunteers and professionals do to save lives in emergency situations. What I’m writing about here is the very human tendency to rest in complacency until a crisis is imminent, and then launch into mindless reactivity, “putting out fires” rather than getting to the root of problems.

Why does this happen? In mainstream US culture, many of us are too overcommitted, overtaxed and overstretched to be able to approach problems in a more thoughtful and planful way. We are just trying to survive. Some of us have made it a habit to let fear be our primary motivator. And some of us don’t see that “other” people’s problems are also our own, so we don’t recognize the gravity of a situation until the fire is raging at our own front door.

Some people in power use firefighting as a self-dealing strategy – it gives the impression they’re doing something important, when in actuality they’re doing next to nothing. Habitually putting out fires makes a big splash, but it doesn’t provide a sustainable solution. Though the short term investment in time and money is low, the long-term cost of over-relying on this superficial strategy is high.

A good recent example of firefighting is the mayor of New York City’s sudden direction of police and emergency workers to involuntarily hospitalize people they deem “too mentally ill” to provide for their own basic living needs. This was an apparent reaction to a series of high-profile crimes involving people who happened to be homeless. While it may create comforting optics to react in this way, it really is just sweeping complicated problems under the proverbial rug. There are many questions that need to be explored.

How will first responders decide whether or not someone can take care of their own basic needs? What is the criteria? What kind of training will they receive? Are there checks and balances in place to prevent abuse? So often we set up already besieged public servants for failure by throwing additional responsibilities at them without thinking things through – ultimately putting vulnerable people at greater risk.

According to the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City, in 2015 approximately one in every 10 adults in this area had a serious mental illness. After the pandemic, this is likely to be higher. In January of 2022 it was estimated that there were at least 700 unsheltered homeless people in the Kansas City metro and as of 12/1/2022, there were 9 hospitals with 387 psychiatric beds. If the New York Mayor’s proclamation happened here in Kansas city, where would people go? Our mental health units are already too few. Its like tossing a hot potato to the last person in line and then blaming them when fingers are burned.

What kind of care is needed and who will pay for it? Local psychiatric hospitals typically keep people no longer than about a week – on average from 3-13 days according to Statistica. Yet recovery from psychosis, if it is to be comprehensive, must include rebuilding one’s shattered life and confidence, taking months and even years. Expensive medications that have to be regularly refilled at a pharmacy are often needed to maintain wellness. Is the city prepared and committed to following through with supporting these folks so the hospitals don’t remain even more of a revolving door than they already are?

The expression of our mental health crisis that first responders encounter on the streets is certainly not the first link in a long chain of events and circumstances that tend to lead to these situations. There are historical, generational, systemic, cultural and attitudinal factors that contribute to this downstream place we find ourselves reacting to. If we want to see lasting change, we need to be taking an upstream approach addressing root causes – the known risk factors. Similarly, first responders and hospitals should not be the final link in a chain of solutions. If they are to be effective, they must be supported by a web of deeply interconnected partnerships and strategies for compassionately preventing and addressing mental illness.

There are many more examples of problematic firefighting happening today in our society. A big one is the climate crisis. Many people in the Global South are already suffering greatly due to the consequences of climate change. Water is scarce in some areas, while communities have been displaced by floods in others. Farms are no longer able to support traditional crops and communities are forced to choose between food insecurity or water insecurity. In some places, people can’t work outdoors due to dangerously high temperatures. Yet those of us in the Global North, who are the biggest contributors to the crisis, are content for now to simply put out literal forest fires, rebuild after more intense and frequent hurricanes, and construct bigger walls at our borders. Will we keep doing this until the worst of it is at our doorstep? By then it may be too late.

The more compassionate approach would be to mindfully shift our values toward collective wellbeing. Rather than elevating individual financial or material wealth and endless growth above all else, what if we elevated the common good, which must include all living beings including the planet? We know there are foundational determinants of wellbeing and skills we can develop that increase happiness and resilience. We also know there are risk factors that can be mitigated. If we poured our energies into these factors, we might move from firefighting to a true embodiment of compassion in a world where everyone can thrive. With practice, mindfulness can help us awaken to the possibilities and compassion can replace fear as our primary motivator for beneficial change.

I will not die an unlived life
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.

Dawna Markova, I Will Not Die an Unlived Life

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.