Passion is a very powerful tool, so powerful in fact if we could bottle it and sell it we would probably be billionaires. Passion is also a very misunderstood quality by people who have their own interests ahead of the mission. Many people see the few moments of success and assume that is what passion is all about, but what they don’t see are the countless hours of failure, insecurity, exhaustion, and downright depression that accompany applying undeterred passion to everything we do. They see the few high fives, pats on the back, and acknowledgements, but completely miss the negativity, ridicule, taunting, belittling, and overall assault we often take on the way to those limited moments of triumph. And while many assume that those who are always trying to change, tweak, or improve the way we do what we do are doing so for their own personal gain, the harsh reality is that most of us spend the majority of our days sulking in the darkness of our passion, trying to figure out how to make things better for the very same people who are trying to beat us down!
Everything in life seems to have an adversary. We all seem to have to overcome things that stand in our way and test our resolve. In the case of our passion, that adversary is ego. Not necessarily our ego, but the egos of others who confuse our attempts and dedication with threats to their influence. The end result typically manifests as a power struggle between those who are focused on function over form and those who cannot seem to get on board unless their name is at the top of the list of congratulations or puts them in the spotlight. Ironically, they are happy to take credit when the end result is perceived as positive by the team, but will quickly point the blame elsewhere when it is not. And who do you think shoulders that blame more times than not? Well the passionate of course, as we are easy targets since we are always “pushing people’s buttons” to begin with. At face value, this may seem more like differences of opinions or clashing personalities than it does a beating, however, in many departments there is some seriously messed up stuff going on in the name of vanity. Sadly, most know who really cares but actively choose to back those who make them comfortable rather than those who make them capable.
When things break, we tend to focus more on the actual point of fracture or failure than we do the events that led up to the final rupture. For this reason, we don’t always understand or infer that something appearing very minor like a disagreement over tactics, operations, specifications, or equipment can be enough to send someone who feels alone, lost, and opposed over the edge. Instead, we just keep pouring on the pressure and tell them to “suck it up”, “be a team player”, “be like everyone else”, or some other bullshit request to conform to the mediocrity we spend our lives fighting against. By proposing ideas or identifying areas for improvement we somehow become the enemy to a group who once lured us to their circle through broken promises like duty, honor, and courage. Many of the same people who rake our run-down bodies over the coals are the same who are constantly trying to sell us on the misnomer of “Brotherhood”, just as long as it is their brand. In reality our efforts are only accepted is we stroke those egos and become puppets in the shit show that makes up the core values you won’t find on any department seal, but seem to be honored by the vast majority; arrogance, conceit, and pridefulness.
It is at this point in our quest to serve our profession where that final straw breaks and we are hit by the fatal blow that cracks us. In our worst hour, all the support systems we were led to believe would be there to catch us when we fall fail. Instead of being part of the brotherhood, we become castaways on a dark, deserted island of failure, self-consciousness, and self-destruction. We try to give up, but we can’t because we don’t know how. We start to second guess and doubt ourselves. We apologize for giving a shit in a desperate attempt to gain back acceptance. We shoulder the blame we don’t deserve and somehow try to justify the selfishness of others, falsely believing we are the problem when in fact we are normally the solution. We find dangerous ways to cope based on fear of rejection and temporary satisfaction. Yet still we long to make this craft better so no we lead a double life, trying to play the game and win our battles by making others think they idea is their own. Sometimes it works, but most times it fails and in the end we become even more fucked up than we started while those who oppose our passion seem to come out with another mark in the victory column.
As we fight not only the external battle that brought us here, we add the internal battle that will ultimately melt us down. The fatigue and debilitation of fighting against an enemy who cares only about themselves is enough to bring the strongest, most dedicated men and women in the game to their knees. And unfortunately for many of us, by this point we have burned most of the bridges we once used to escape when things came of the rails. We have worn out all the ears, shoulders, phone calls, and e-mails that were once offered to us as many just get sick of hearing the same old story. We have cried wolf one too many times they think. We always have the same “sob story” or “woe is me” conversation that even the most well-intentioned confidant gets sick of hearing. They tell us they are there for us and they understand, but in reality, we then get lumped into the same category as the whiners and complainers because we are “never satisfied”. At the same time no one sees that we are being dismissed for coming to the table with the solutions we were asked to bring with the problems, only they left out the fact that if they didn’t agree with our solutions we would be labeled as troublemakers instead of visionaries. And just like that, what was once bright, promising passion is turned into a blackout of deceit, disappointment, and dejection. Our phone calls stopped being answers, our emails lack replies, our ideas are no longer considered, and our last ditch cries for help are no longer heard.
When this point is reached, the darkness become unbearable. There is no one left to call. There is no like-minded person to reassure us it will be okay. Instead we are left with only the solace of the person looking back at us in the mirror who has become so far from the person we started with, even their feedback no longer seems of value. There is no backing, support, or encouragement, just the pain and frustration with being isolated to our own little world where we are told to sit down and shut up until we come to our senses and “fit in” like everyone else. Our names, drug through the mud. Our efforts, marginalized and dismissed. We shy away from everything and everyone as we conclude that nobody understands or really cares for us. We are so wounded by the bad relationships that we self-destruct the good ones because we can no longer fathom that trusting another person will be beneficial in the end. We bought so much stock in the promise of the fire service that when it fails us, our hope and confidence become bankrupt. The harder we try, the more they push us away until one day we finally snap and throw our passion away or even worse, we throw everything away…
Last year, suicide took the lives of more firefighters than the job. Let me state that again in a slower, more direct way so we all understand… WE ARE KILLING OURSELVES MORE THAN THE FIRES WE GO TO! Why do I bring this up? Well, I have a working theory that I one day hope to quantify about PTSD, suicide, and our “Brotherhood”. That theory is that intimidation and tormenting among our own is the real cause of our PTSD and it is just exacerbated by the horrible things we see along the way. I think people get sick and fucking tired of being told to sit down and shut the fuck up when they are the ones who should be listened to. I think our precious culture has a lot to do with people losing their way, making bad choices, and facing the point of no return. I think we have lost the mission, the Brotherhood, and each other. I think more of us are showing up with a fake smile and allegiance than I can ever prove because they care so deeply for our craft that they would rather put on the happy face and try to fake it than they would go do something else. I think we have become so self-indulged in this profession that nobody gives a fuck about the person next to them anymore. Even worse, I think most of us know this, yet we continue to perpetuate the cycle that cuts down passionate people under the false ideology that they are self-motivated and therefore will continue to give no matter what, while those who are here for themselves need to be coddled so they don’t leave. And just like that, the promising careers and lives of those who dedicated themselves to serving others seems to be ruined or cut short all because greed, egos, and haughtiness somehow became more important than our mission which once fulfilled us just fine. The “you go, we go” mentality we mock because of the way Hollywood portrayed it is all but dead in our firehouses. Finally, I think WE ARE THE REASON more and more of our brothers and sisters are finding suicide as their only option each year.
Now that I am sure most reading this are completely offended, I challenge you to think about it good and hard. How many people do you know that are being attacked for challenging the status quo? How many once motivated people one day became numb? How are you treating the brothers and sisters that call you family? Are we really as open-minded as we claim to be? Are we more focused on being the “hero” with all the answers, or the operational outcomes we produce? Why are the guys who eat, sleep, and breath the job the first ones to be laughed at or attacked? Why is being into this job such a bad thing? Why the fuck do we go after people who are self-driven? Why would we ever tell someone to slow down or even worse STOP? Why would you ever dismiss something that operationally makes sense because you didn’t come up with it or you don’t care for the person who did? And WHY, WHY, WHY would we ever try to make other firefighters feel like they don’t belong?! Sure, there are going to be those who find their way through the cracks that shouldn’t be here, but I am talking about he once that are dedicated. Something has to give!
If you are losing the good fight, don’t lose hope. At the end of the day, the fire service is a better place because of the minority who give a shit, even if our profession is too stubborn to admit it. We must stop this evil trend of demonizing those who put the mission above all else. We must end this stigma that those who seek change and improvement are trying to screw everyone else over. The passionate don’t keep themselves up at night worrying about the things they do because they are selfish. Mental health starts with how we treat each other. Everyone needs a break. Everyone needs to regroup. Please, find a healthy way to put some light in the darkness. Find a support system or way to decompress. If nothing else, message me. I will listen or come to anyone at any time to the best of my ability. This profession is trying enough without having to battle the very people we are supposed to trust with our lives. I am afraid until we address that fact, we are going to lose many more of our own to the darkness that often unnecessarily haunts our passion…