More times than most of us can remember, people we have been speaking to— nonfirefighters—will comment that they think we are really different. They always follow it up with saying that they mean no disrespect or offense but that we remind them of their dad or mom or someone from long ago. This is usually after they had been asking us about the job, its risks and dangers, and its challenges and rewards. They are confused as to why we enjoy it so much and why we do it all. They are also confused when we decline to blame anyone for our injuries or illnesses, when we generally say it is our duty and we understand the risks.
We understand that America has been, and always will be, blessed with generation after generation of patriots—men and women who, despite the risks, accept the challenge; who, irrespective of the personal consequences, have had the courage, the strength to be firefighters, warfighters, cops, and medics; who embody a certain character; who live on the edge solely to keep others from passing over it; and who willingly put themselves in the gap between order and chaos.
That is not to say we don’t gripe; we do, to our fellow insiders. We all complain endlessly: about our jobs, the bosses, the department, the patients, working conditions, the pay, and almost every possible aspect of what we call our job. But, not surprising to any of us, none of the good ones leave.
Yes, we all endlessly gripe about everything and everyone, but we all stay. We stay because we belong here, we fit in here, we get one another. That awareness of our commonality is what Dr. Thomas Joiner calls our sense of belongingness. That belongingness is comprised of many things: legend, tradition, history, principles, character, and virtue. These things have inspired firefighters from generation to generation to perform at a level far beyond anything that anyone thought was possible.
Belongingness, membership, is precious; it makes us able to do things that baffle doctors, astound engineers, upset folks in central planning, and impress outsiders in general. Our belongingness is treasured, protected. Those in command at every level must always be made mindful that to be a good officer you must know what your people are going through and what is expected of them or you don’t know what you are doing. We hold this mantra as fundamental: “Those who talk should do, and only those who do should talk.”
Today, it seems we are being confronted by so many frightening revelations, reports, and findings from doctors, psychologists, researchers, and therapists—all experts, all truly concerned, and all predicting the seemingly inevitable fate every firefighter is destined to befall: really horrible things, terrible fates, and seemingly overwhelming challenges for firefighters—cancers, addictions, emotional issues, physical injuries, autoimmune diseases, and mental health disorders. We get it; those risks are only too real for all of us. Unfortunately, our civilian buddies engaging us in conversation who have no bloody clue of what is expected of us or what we are going through insist we embrace a victim status.
Firefighters never bought into this fatalistic victimization trap because we operate forward in the real world, in real time, against real threats, involving real people’s lives—and often our own. We deal with real victims, and we recognize their suffering. We see real pain and tragedy. And we never would do anything to belittle or minimize those we care for.
We do this all the while staying focused on the mission, our families, our fellow firefighters, our friends—often to our detriment, our own personal health and well-being. We have in our genetic code the undeniable need to help others, to live meaningful lives, to take up arms against a sea of troubles. We embrace the chance to do deeds that unborn men will hear of.
We understand all too well that there is an undeniable objective reality. We accept and acknowledge that there is right and wrong, good and evil, and that life involves suffering. We fight for the chance to tilt at windmills, to stand against hurricanes, to chase tornados, to march into hell if someone needs us or is in trouble.
Those things make us come together in ways that those who never did could never understand. We love each other unconditionally, even the firefighters we can’t stand: We love them as long as they toe the line, as they are good firefighters. We celebrate our good fortune, our history, our righteous shared values, our loving and just culture, our strong and undefeatable community. We acknowledge that the challenges we have accepted—the risks, the dangers, the threats that our chosen work inherently exposes us to—are only all too real—injury, cancer, addiction, mental health—but we refuse to accept them as inevitable, fated, preordained, or overwhelming.
We reject victimhood. In doing so, we also recognize we must come together to tell the other side of the story of struggle and suffering—the victor story, how, when you have the love of a just and supportive culture, industry, family and friends; how when you ask for, accept, and act on help from doctors, therapists, consolers, researchers, and friends, you come out stronger, blessed, energized, wiser, and more in love than ever before with life, friends, family, and firefighting.
That it is our culture of belongingness, our bond of a shared moral system, our commonality of purpose and meaning. It is our assurance of mutual aid and support that enables us to cope when dark times envelope us. Every single firefighter knows why, and we say it without hesitation, because firefighting is the best damn job we’ve ever had, and if you don’t understand that, then I can’t help you.
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