Fire doesn’t care whom you voted for, whom you hate, whom you pray to, or the color of your skin. Flames don’t distinguish between those who give charity and those who steal, between those who are “right,” and those who are “wrong.” They don’t have eyes, morality, or a conscience. They don’t see good and bad. They are an equal opportunity destroyer.
The wildfires that are raging in California, like all natural disasters, are sadly the great equalizer. They afflict everyone equitably, reminding us that no matter how we try to distinguish one another, in the grand scope of things we are all mortal, and vulnerable, and not so dissimilar.
Even more than that, they remind us that we are reliant on each other. In the normal course of daily events, we feel independent and secure. We close our doors and feel self-contained, self-sufficient, perhaps even self-righteous. But then the fires come, and our doors are burnt off their hinges. Our windows, through which we have observed others at a distance and perhaps judged them less favorably than we would judge ourselves, are shattered, and the outside rushes in. The boundaries we have built between us and others have been breached, and now we must call for help.
When we do, the ones who hear our cry are not going to pause and wonder, “Is that a Republican calling out, or a Democrat? Is it a member of my tribe, or a foreigner? Does s/he resemble me, or have very different features? Do I know that person well enough to determine whether s/he is worth helping or saving?” They will not ask these questions any more than we will ask them when we hear them cry out.
They and we will stop and say, “Someone is in danger, someone is hurt. I don’t know who it is, but it doesn’t matter. It could have been me.” More likely, there will be no time for such reflection. If we say anything, it will simply be, “Hold on, I’m coming!”
We will respond without thinking because you don’t think in a moment of crisis, you react. This reaction is beyond intellect; it comes from the core of who we are. And at the core of who we are, we are not different. It is our very nature to help our own. Moreover, we realize in moments like this that “our own” is a far less narrow category than we ordinarily assume. It does not just apply to those who look like us or act like us, or who come from the same places and heritage that we do. “Our own” is our species, all of those with whom we share 99.9% of our genetic makeup.
We are often at our best when circumstances are at their worst. These moments call forth in us an essential reality and commonality that is obscured by life’s daily exigencies. As the raging wildfires in California overcome cities and consume homes, possessions, and all of the things that differentiate us, our basic humanity remains and is one of the few things that is impervious to the flames.
There is much work to be done now to help those who are suffering in the fire’s trajectory or have suffered in its wake. We can all offer something – here is a great article entitled “19 things you can do to help California wildfire victims right now” – and we can hope that the victims will soon be restored to a situation of security and prosperity. We will look forward to a return to normalcy, but not to the precise status quo that preceded the blaze.