I remember reading something Mother Teresa wrote once that I found incredibly inspiring. She said “What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight. Build anyways.”
Then my house burnt down.
Build anyways. Right. Good one Theresa. What about the decade of lost effort? The agonizing parcels of time I traded for dollars with which I spent building a home. Funding a lifestyle. It’s enough to make your stomach flip. Time is everything. Your short valuable seconds. Hours are your most precious and useful asset. It was time itself that was going up in smoke. Hours of my life dedicated to that dream that now crackled and burned. Destroyed, with a huge gaping nothing to show for it.
Was this all a cruel lesson? Just a cliché ‘where your treasure is…’ old-man-on-the-mountain slice of wisdom? A quote that would look good on a meme? The words somehow didn’t fill that screaming ache I felt standing in the ashes of the house. Seeing the burnt neck of the guitar I learned to play on. Time. The melted basketball hoop I used diligently to make the high school basketball team. Time. My photo albums of the 37 countries I visited with my brother, just charred rungs left. Time.
The ‘RE’ in re-build, re-start, re-do are perhaps the most cruel two letters to put in front of another word. ‘Re’ means it’s already been done. You’re just going to have to do it all over again. Like getting thrown back home in that board game ‘Sorry’ squashing all progress you’ve made forward in a brutal instant.
‘Re’ can also be an incredible two letters that somehow spells H-O-P-E. Sometimes, ‘re’ might be the push someone needs to change perspective. I think of George Bailey in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life,’ that black and white film that brings a lump to my throat every Christmas. George had a chance to see what the world would look like if had he never been born. He saw the impact he had on so many people. Through his life choices of self-denial and service he was, unknown to himself, one of the most celebrated, admired and meaningfully accomplished members of his community.
Imagine a similar objective view on yourself. Imagine being able to push ‘reset’ on your life. At first you might feel disoriented, directionless, lost even. Sounds familiar. But with some introspection is this not a perfect time to start to build, from the ground up, the life you’ve imagined? I’m sure, like me, bad habits have crept in over the last few years. Bad habits in finances. In fitness. In routine. In relationships. Call it complacency. Justify it with time restrictions, but aren’t these just excuses?
Now, have the hand of fate reach into that comfortable, complacent bubble, and with its icy cold fingers, rip you up, spin you around by your ankles and plop you down, with nothing but the shirt on your back left to move forward with. Sit down for a second and cry. That’s going to happen. It’s also okay. But when you’re out of tears, it’s time to look up and figure out where you want to go. Don’t look for the easiest place to go, or where others want you to go, but look back, way back for some of us to the deep recesses of the mind and ask “what have I always wanted my life to look like?” Even as a kid, I’ve always wanted to be disciplined. Accomplished. Respected. Healthy.
In a way the fire has gotten rid of the clutter in my life. It’s allowed me to refocus on what impact I want to have and what kind of man I need to be to make that happen.
It’s made me more frugal with my spending--in a good way. I like nice things as much as the next guy. But I look at the money I had spent on nice things that went up in smoke. Now, when buying something, it’s easier to say no to a want versus a need. I imagine taking the money I would need to buy the item in question and throwing it in the campfire. Do I still want it that bad? Is it worth those parcels of time if I lost it? What you realize is you can’t burn memories, experiences, travel, character building and most importantly, relationships. In an old-man-on-a-mountain sort of way, it has also taught me about priorities. I can still play guitar. That time wasn’t lost. My basketball jump shot is still pretty good. I still have every memory and lesson from each one of those 37 countries.
Since the fire, I’ve been wine tasting in Kelowna, paddle boarding in Oregon, visited old friends in Ontario, backpacked through Gibbon, Healey and Whistling Pass in Banff National Park, canoed a section of the Clearwater and yet, I still don’t have a coffee table. Or a dining room table.
Over the years I may accumulate these things. But what I hope to never lose, is this new conviction that money is meant for doing, not so much having. I’d much rather spend it to visit someone that means something to me than buy a new outfit. Spend it on books over looks.
With the right mentality, the two letters, ‘re-‘ can be full of excitement, a glimpse into blazing possibility. Remember when Edison had to ‘redo’ the light-bulb? Imagine every artist who has had to start from scratch. Sitting there, staring at a blank canvas, a lifeless chunk of marble or an empty roll of film. What masterpieces sat waiting? What life altering creations are being thought into existence? Is this your Mona Lisa? Your David?
Why should we try to just get back to where we were? This is a powerful opportunity to pole vault over that into something bigger, better and more incredible; something that couldn’t have happened without the fire. What if Fort McMurray became a leading voice in community development? What if the areas of Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways became the most coveted areas of town with leading architectural design, award winning landscaping... It’s a blank page. What if one day we walk through a museum in our own Heritage Park that chronicles the fire and how Fort McMurray used it to build one of the most resilient, forward thinking communities in Canada?
The spirit of the entire event has been almost a physical companion. It seems every car I sit behind at the traffic lights has some sort of ‘Fort Mac Strong’ decal on it. What lasting good will come of this event if everyone forgets by this time next year, the potential of the blank page? The solidarity our community has demonstrated?
Remember how the Americans, in the midst of a global recession instituted the ‘New Deal’ to almost solve unemployment, and lay the groundwork to launch the USA into the realm of Superpower? Look how far the Germans and Japanese have come since the shattering effects of World War II. All of these countries weren’t looking to get back to their old ways, but reaching forward to better, more positive contributions to the world.
Disaster can lead to fruitful and inspiring change. What it takes, I think, is the mindset of John F. Kennedy when he said “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what can you do for your country?” With every citizen humbly playing a small part, massive things can take place. People are not four walls. The human spirit is bigger than a driveway and parcel of ground. You never know who you are inspiring. Maybe your children will look back on this event as a lesson in courage and tenacity. Maybe because of your reaction to it. “What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight. Build ANYWAYS.”
I read a book on Spartan warriors once. These crazy guys would purposely dunk their children into icy cold water every morning. The goal was to create a tough, resilient community. No one was allowed get soft. No one was allowed to complain. A community where personal comfort took a backseat to purpose. I’m not suggesting that people polar dip on the regular to toughen up, but people are still people. We have the same qualities and capabilities of these warriors so many years ago. Maybe sometimes we forget that in our Venti mocha cappa latte world. Maybe sometimes it just takes a bit of discomfort to remind us of what’s inside. Maybe it takes some sort of Beast to wake us up.
“Consult not your fears but your hopes. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you have tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.”
—St. John XXIII