With sirens blazing, and lights flashing, the fire truck screams through the thick, black night. On the other side of town, smoke has been reported billowing out of an upper floor apartment. Jim Acosta, Bert Adams, and Skip O’Reilly have been working together as a team for thirty years. They have rescued children, old people, dogs and cats, and even pet birds from burning buildings. They pride themselves on having close to never having left a life unsaved. The fire truck tears through red lights. Skip, at the wheel, has done this so many times that his instincts tell him whether it is safe, more than his eyes or his ears. When the fire truck screeches to a halt outside the apartment building, the residents are already assembled in pajamas and gowns down on the street. Bert curses under his breath when he sees the gaggle of reporters already assembled. When someone calls 911, how is it humanly possible for reporters to get there quicker than the fire service? But there they are, cameras in hand.
By now, not only smoke is billowing from that upstairs apartment, but flames are leaping out dangerously as well. Without waiting to take a breath, Skip begins to extend the ladder up towards the burning window, and Bert, now fully encased in his fireproof attire, prepares for the ascent. Only as his foot touches the first rung does Bert hear the wailing. A young African American woman, close to hysterical, is being held back by her neighbors from rushing back into the inferno. “My baby,” she cries, “My baby, she is still inside. I came down here because I thought she was ahead of me, but she is still inside.” If Bert was not already fully awake, he is now. The next few seconds may turn that woman into a bereaved mother, scarred for life, or into a molten pile of pure relief. He is ready.
Just at that moment out of the corner of his eye, he sees Jim Friedman, the photographer for the local Gazette. Bert climbs back down from the ladder and makes his way back towards the cabin of the truck.
“Where on earth are you going?” screams Skip, in disbelief.
“There is a photographer there,” Bert replies, “I need to do my hair and makeup to make sure I look good for the paper.”
I told that same story yesterday, at our Radical Brilliance Laboratory here in Nevada City. Of course, when I got to that line, everyone laughed. It totally broke the story because it was so completely, utterly, totally, inappropriate. There is no fireman on the entire planet, when given the opportunity to save the life of a young child, who would pause, concerned to look good on camera.
It is a cliché to say that our world is out of balance. Fire up Google News any day, or listen to the radio, or just check your Facebook feed, and you are faced with a non-stop barrage of seemingly urgent fires to put out. You know the list by now: global warming, terrorism, financial inequality, GMO crops, the potential extinction of bees. We could go on and on and on for hours. Unarmed black teens get routinely gunned down by the police, in a society that refuses to see the systemic racism that marinates its every vein. How can we let another day go by with things this way? Watch the movie “Queen of the Sun,” a documentary about bees, and feel equally urgent about the extinction of the small creatures upon which pollination, and hence, everyone’s life depends. You could educate yourself about the tiny shards of plastic now found throughout the Pacific Ocean which are poisoning sea life. There are probably hundreds of thousands of completely unjust and completely avoidable things like this in our world today: things that we could change if we woke up to the urgency.
So, back to Bert, still poised with one foot on the first rung of the ladder. If this was just a training, or a demonstration for entertainment, it would be a perfectly reasonable thing to want to adjust his hair. When the life of the child is on the line, such a preoccupation becomes absurd, grotesque even.
This is what my new book, “Radical Brilliance”, is about, and the coaching and one week “laboratories” that have been generated from it. The world is on fire, in a sense. The child in the upstairs apartment represents the grandchildren of our grandchildren. Whether or not they have an earth to live on depends on how we proceed together. Truthfully, most of humanity is busy adjusting their hair: wanting to look good on camera. It is just how it is. Human beings, by default, think about the gratification of their immediate desires. How can I get more money? How can I be more famous? How can I make people like me more? How can I have better sex? How can I lose weight? How can I live longer? Just occasionally someone is awoken from this slumber just enough to hear the cries of the child in the upstairs apartment. Then, inevitably and naturally, those preoccupations fade away. The question, ”What can I get for me?” is replaced by “I am available, what can I do to help?”
There is a curriculum of sanity and intelligence raining down on this planet, in my humble opinion. We have to be willing to collapse the umbrella of self-preoccupation in order for that curriculum to reach us. It is actively looking for volunteers. There is a signup sheet in the hall. Everyone who applies is accepted.
Here is the funny catch, which no one expects. When we follow the craving of more for me, it just leads to more and more discontent, complaint, and a gnawing feeling of emptiness. But those few people who shift their attention to a life of contribution discover meaning, purpose, and integrity. Stress diminishes, because there is less resistance. Money flows more easily, because you are in tune with the source of everything.
If Bert just continues up that ladder, boldly doing what needs to be done, he will, without even thinking or knowing about it, look great on camera: because he is doing what he does so well. He will carry that child back down to her mama’s arms. Having put his own life aside to save another, he will be crowned a hero and feel an explosion of goodness in his chest. If he hesitates from his mission in the interest of looking good, we may well lose that child. And Bert, meanwhile, will just look like another self-obsessed dork.