The Greatest Risk: Happiness, Part 1

Mike conferring with teammates, L5. (Photo by John Odegard.)


By Anne Gagliano

Firefighters are risk-takers. In this bravest of professions, it almost goes without saying that firefighters will risk everything to save lives; their safety and that of their crew; their peace of mind; their lives; and, subsequently, their loved-ones’ hearts. Surrounded by death and destruction, natural disasters, human stupidity, unavoidable accidents, and deliberate cruelties, how does a firefighter not become a little cynical, jaded, pessimistic? Their survival may even depend on it; for them to remain positive can be an exercise in futility. Hopes are so easily crushed, dreams burned to the ground, and life so easily snuffed out—firefighters bear witness to these realities every day. Add to this the pressures of home life—the demands of marriage, kids, and being a provider—and the obstacles to happiness can seem insurmountable. So why even try?

The Greatest Risk: Happiness, Part 2

It’s easier to expect the worst. To not raise your hopes yet again, just to see them dashed. To become dour and sour and negative and dark with a cynical, terse manner of speech. Then, if the worst does happen, you’ve risked nothing. Thus, the greatest risk of all for a firefighter? To choose happiness, to have a positive, hopeful, cheerful attitude, and a soft tender heart in a profession that threatens to break it over and over again.

The miracle of human nature is this: we can find joy amidst sorrow. We can have faith that life is good despite the evidence of its brevity and potential for disaster. We can risk our hearts again and again, despite past pains, to be receptive to new joys and fresh pleasures. To risk such optimism in the midst of what firefighters face is truly the greatest challenge, but it can be done.

Firefighters, more so than most professionals, must choose to focus on the good things and exercise selective attention by deliberately ignoring the bad. They must fight to remain hopeful, not succumb to the darkness of dealing with human tragedy on a regular basis. Fortunately, firefighters are uniquely qualified to do this; risk-taking is second nature to them. Aspire to happiness, fight the darkness, dare to be optimistic, and seek joy, both at the firehouse and at home. It’s easier said than done, I know. Sometimes it helps to recognize the obstacles or hindrances to happiness, so that we can avoid them. Following are a few that Mike and I have identified in our 33 years of living in the world of fighting fires:

Control. In his book, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, Gordon Livingston, M.D. writes, “Most of us devote great amounts of time and energy to efforts to assert control over what happens to us in our uncertain progress through life.” He goes on to say about control in regard to family, “Most of the debilitating struggles within families that drain the happiness of all concerned and lead to destructive power struggles flow from an obsessive need for control.”

The paradox of control, for firefighters especially, is that they must be excellent at what they do, or people die. In the midst of chaos, they must return order as soon as possible, and this they do by asserting control. This works at a fire scene, to an extent. but so much of emergency is beyond what anyone can control. The sooner a firefighter relaxes about perfection, the better life is. Excellent to a point, but flexible throughout. Realize that control is nearly impossible, so do the best you can, then let it go.

Obsessive orderliness or demands for perfection are alienating to others at work, and absolutely insufferable at home. No one likes to be perpetually hounded or hen-pecked; we’re not animals, but people with dignity. Let go of “perfect”; it is the enemy of “good.” The less you are preoccupied with things that don’t matter, such as your children cleaning their plates or rooms, the more you can focus on what does—that they are moral and educated and well loved. The only real way to gain control is to relinquish it. There is true freedom in learning to roll with the flow and enjoy life as comes. And, let your family members have some choice, some space, and some say in how things go. It’s way more fun to be a part of a team than the prisoner of a controlling jailer. Both firefighting and family are team sports.

Fear of the future and regret for the past. Most of what we fear never comes to pass. We waste an inordinate amount of time worrying about things we can’t possibly predict, and our worry changes nothing. Take precautions, yes, but don’t be absorbed by every potential disaster. Although emergency responders see what can happen to anyone at any time, it doesn’t mean it will happen to you. Because firefighters are at the other end of 911, their view is a concentrated one, a condensed and extreme one. Though Mike and I have been in the fire world for 33 years, our house has never burned down, we’ve never been attacked, and we’ve never even been in a car wreck. We’ve always had enough to eat and pay our bills, had a roof over our heads, and our kids grew up healthy and strong and even went to college. Anxiety can be crippling, and anxiety is simply fear of what “may” happen. It’s not real.

The past is gone. Do not live there, do not dwell on it. You can learn from your mistakes, but you can’t change them. To dwell on past errors, failures, or losses may lead to despair and intense self-absorption. It takes tremendous energy to keep rehashing events of yesterday because if you don’t, you just may forget them and move on. It’s enabling to hang on to your disappointments. They give credence to your inactions today.

True courage comes from letting go of future fears and past regrets and living in the now, savoring the now, enjoying the now. An unwillingness to let go of worry and disappointment robs the present of its joy. It is a distraction, a waste of precious energy which is so much better spent seeking and finding happiness today.

Happiness is a risk—but nothing ventured, nothing gained. I have a few more obstacles that can trip you up your path to joy that I’ll explain in my next column, including the perfect stranger, holding grudges, and lack of humor.


 If you’re interested in my book, Challenges of the Firefighter Marriage, check it out HERE

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Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 33 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.

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