Selfishness and a Fire Truck

I walked over to the neighborhood drugstore just now to get a couple of necessities like Coke and peanuts. When I came back out, I heard, then saw, a fire engine about a block away on Peachtree Street. Before it got to me, it turned east onto 5th Street, toward where I live. “Oh no,” I thought. “As long as it’s not my place.”

Upon which I immediately asked myself if I was really wishing a house fire on someone else. I still remember, 38 years later, that sinking, sickening feeling I had when my own house burned down. How could I wish that feeling on someone else?

Well, I thought, at least I hope the fire isn’t hitting anyone even less fortunate than me.

What!? Am I playing the poor card, and wishing disaster on “those rich folks”? Because, what?, they can afford it more easily? Really, they have so much more to lose than I would. Someone “more fortunate than me” could be, for example, just a working class family with a couple of kids. No, even if they have insurance, that would too horrible for them, especially for the kids — the fear, the grief.

It’s not the amount of loss, I realized. Someone scraping by, someone with almost nothing, might have less to lose, but would probably be impacted by a fire far harder than I would.

Exasperated, I asked myself if I was being selfish. If I’m saying it’s bad to hope a richer person’s house is on fire, and bad to hope it’s a poorer person’s, does that mean the right thing to do is wish that the fire truck really was headed for my apartment after all? No, I decided, that’s ridiculous. There’s no reasonable morality or ethical system that would require that.

This might have been a good time to stop having this conversation with myself, but I always have trouble telling my brain to shut up once it gets going.

By now I’d walked far enough to see down the next block, and there was the fire truck, with a police car, parked next to what appeared to be a relatively minor traffic accident. Well, good, I thought, that’s a much better outcome than any of the hypothetical scenarios that my over-active imagination had been fretting about.

Back in my apartment, as I settled in to nibble on my peanuts and sip my Coke, I tried to figure out where that whole thought process had gone off the rails. Somehow I’d reached the conclusion that none of my feelings was morally acceptable, and being let off the hook by the discovery that there was no disaster to contemplate after all wasn’t a satisfactory resolution either.

So here’s what I came to. Maybe it’s trivial and obvious, but it felt like insight to me, which is why I’m going on and on about this incident.

The error that I made was in trying to wish away something painful that was already happening. The reality of the fire truck meant that I couldn’t wish it away completely, so the impulse was channeled into wishing it in one direction or another. Children might wish for bad things to happen to anyone but them, but part of growing up is leaving that behind. We learn that when the bad things don’t happen to us, it doesn’t mean they don’t happen at all; it means they happen to some other real, live person. Once we know that, we can never go back and un-know it.

The next time I see a fire truck, I’ll stick to reality. Somewhere, some people are hurting, or scared, or grieving over something that’s been lost. Even a minor traffic accident can scare the bejeebus out of you. If I’m close enough, and I’m able, of course the right response is to try to help. But if I’m not, I’ll think of those people, and pray that they find some kind of comfort, whether from one another, or from God, or from the kindness of strangers who happen to be there with them — which is really just God by another name.

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