This week I read an article concerning the death of Nicole Mittendorff, a 31-year-old Fairfax County firefighter. Virginia State Police officers discovered her body Thursday in Shenandoah National Park along with a suicide note. Further investigation pointed to bullying posts on the Fairfax Underground online message board in which Mittendorff was referred to as "ugly" and a "slut." It was also discovered that other women in the fire department were reportedly the targets of hateful posts on the forum.
I have often written of the power of words, positive or negative, in these weekly posts. This tragic event is a perfect illustration of the power of words and of what Tiger Shmitterndoorf’ talked about at the Oregon State Fire Corps Conference in Estacada a few weeks ago: The Fire Within the Fire Station.
I am not a fire fighter nor an EMT. I am just a chaplain. I am a chaplain because I highly value anyone who, in our rather individualistic world, considers giving time by volunteering for the community , especially one as involving as a firefighter or an EMT. I attend drill sessions and whether in a fire or in a medical situation, I am amazed at all these people who train to, at a moment’s notice, make very timely life or death decisions. When they make the right decision, they live with it, but when they make the wrong one, which can happen to anyone, they also must live with it. Anyone who voluntarily subjects him or herself to such dilemmas is worthy of praise and honor, and certainly not bullying.
In drill sessions, whether it concerns fire or medical situations outside the station, I witness all the care and training that is given to obtain the positive results of saving, and rescuing. SOP’s are carefully reviewed and updated; new equipment is meticulously introduced; personal behavior is addressed and chain of command reminded. My question is, “What about the ‘fire’ and ‘medical’ situations inside the fire station? Should we each one as individuals care to protect, save and rescue the ‘rescuers’, put out the ‘fire’, address the ‘unhealthy’ situation within the station in the same manner as we do outside the station?
I remember the story of a high-schooler who was endowed with ears shaped in such a way that many school mates called him ‘Jeep fenders’. He was known to laugh it off as a funny joke; he seemed to like the attention. But one day he stopped laughing and drew much attention, as he was discovered hanging from a rope in his bedroom.
The Good Book does compare the tongue to a fire.
“And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.” James 3:6
Should we put it out?
Tonight my family and I, along with some friends, are celebrating Passover. We celebrate this day of the Jewish calendar every year. What is Passover really? Can we associate it with an American concept? In a sense, Passover could be understood as a mixture of Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. It is the story of a people who dreamed of a free and independent future in a place where they could serve God in the way that He asked them to.
Freedom and independence are the hope of every human being but as we learn in the Passover story, freedom is not free. Many people died in in the Egyptian plagues in order for the Jewish freedom to become reality. And many people died in the American Revolution. The Passover ritual has a place to remember this.
In a sense when we are free, we are not just free; we are also ‘freed’. Freed by somebody who paid the price for our freedom. And if someone pays for our freedom, ethics and integrity demand that we owe allegiance to the person who freed us. So not only is the old adage ‘Freedom is not free!’ true, but we now enter a philosophical ‘catch-22’ as if we owe something to those who free us, we are not totally free. Maybe the problem stems from an erroneous definition of freedom.
In the story of Passover, Jewish freedom is built on the ashes of the life of a man, Moses, who chooses to give up his own freedom, life, and dreams of quiet tranquility to answer the ‘call’ and free the Nation of Israel.
There is something I really like in that story:
It all started because one man answered a call to check on a brush fire on a mountain slope.
I saw in the news recently that someone was trying to sue Facebook for the right to completely and forever delete posts without the risk of ‘cyber-crumbs’. Whereas it seems that it should be someone’s prerogative to delete posts, it might be somewhat unrealistic. The truth of the matter is that the reality of life commands that whatever we do or say, and in this case ‘post’, can never really be deleted from the heart and mind of the receivers. In this case, it could be that Facebook only faces us with the reality check of who we really are through the reflection of our own posts. Sometimes a real look at ourselves in the mirror of our own words and actions and their effect on others is more than we can take.
It used to be that casual conversation was like vapor coming out of our mouths which never transformed into a hard copy. As such, it could easily be dismissed and forgotten, as if only under pretense. Times have changed as today casual behavior and discussion is digitally documented and posted for the world to see and judge. Many a religious and/or political figure has had to be faced with the reality that they cannot, as is done in a court of law, demand that some statement be stricken from the record. And even in these cases, though not entered in public records, it has entered the ears, the heart and mind of the people present in court.
A friend of mine recently got into an uncomfortable situation when jokingly suggesting that her daughter’s dark circles were a result of smoking too much pot. It was a joke, but the mother took it as a false accusation and didn’t find it funny. The daughter did not find it funny either when it got back to her and needless to say, no longer wishes to be in the company of my friend. She wished it hadn’t happened but alas it was too late.
Spoken words are very much like toothpaste. Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, there is no chance of putting it back.
The spoken word is a very important responsibility, especially for teachers and leaders. It is best to carefully chose and weigh one’s words and ‘absolutely never’ use superlatives! The old adage is not really true. Sticks and stones hurt, but word do cause harm too. Words are real things. They lift up, or knock down; they inspire, or they depress; they heal, or they hurt, they give life, or they kill.
Between working, raising a family, volunteering, and trying to spend some time relaxing, many of us may feel like we have full lives. We may feel like our life is consumed with all these activities, and it actually is. I heard a proverb once, ‘If you want something done, ask a busy person. Only a busy person recognizes the importance of doing things right now!’.
As we quickly approach the season of Passover, I am reminded of such a person; a person who was not afraid to be consumed by a life of responsibilities, some self-imposed, some imposed by Divine Mandate. I remember this lonely shepherd tending to his father-law’s sheep in the desert. In the distance, he sees a flame on the mountainside. It was a strange flame as whereas it burned vivaciously, it did not consume its bushy host. The curious shepherd approaches it.
A discussion ensues between the ‘flame’ and the bewildered shepherds. What could it want from him? Why did this fiery host attract his attention? Soon, our faithful sheep watcher and guide would get the assignment of a lifetime. While the fiery host did not consume the bush, it would consume the shepherd till its dying day.
How true it is that a faithful man, a man of integrity will often find himself consumed by the objects of his devotion, whether it be working to keep a roof over his family, raising children, volunteering, or all of the above.
On the other hand, some of us may fe+el at times as if we were in a lonely desert taking care of other people’s goods, but at any given moment, our path may take us to encounter the flame of duty. While its call may seem all-consuming, may we remember that the value of a life is not in how much is gathered but in how much is given, and that the eyes of the Eternal Judge do not even look at what we give, but rather at what we have left once we are done giving.
Many of us have dreams,-- things we want to do with our lives. We strive for success in our career, ministry, social, or community activity. Many put feet to these dreams, giving them wings , until ‘life happens’ , or... they meet the ‘Dream Grinch’. Though the Dream Grinch is a very small creature, he has the uncanny ability to intimidate and rob us of our dreams. And how does he do it? By making big noises.
Dreams are fragile. Unless motivated by passion, like soap bubbles they pop as soon as the pressure is not right. Without passion, the most altruistic of dreams can be destroyed by a failed attempt, a whisper, by slander, or a discouraging look by a coworker.
The dark clouds of failure loom over every dream, but if we learn from them, we soon discover their silver lining. The sad thing is when we, who find our dream in social or community service, empower the ‘Dream Grinch’ by listening to slander and gossip. As I said before, the Dream Grinch is a very small creature, but only when compared with the size of our passion. The passion for our dream, for the things we believe in, should be so great that it doesn’t matter whether people agree or disagree; like or dislike us or , slander or hurt us. It bears no power on our spirit. Passion propels the dream and drowns out the noise of the Dream Grinch.
The Dream Grinch has only as much power as we allot him by listening to him. The questions we should ask ourselves when we are tempted to give in to his tiresome litanies are, “Is it true?” And even if it is, “When compared to the greatness of the vision, when aligned with the importance of the mission, does it matter?” And even more, ‘Is the protection of our sense of vindication and validation more important than the vision and mission at hand?”
Last weekend I attended some of the Oregon State Fire Corps Conference in Estacada. We were treated to Tiger Shmitterndorf’s session: ‘From the X Box to the Alarm Box’. During the session he asked the question, “Is there a difference between a leader and a follower?”
This s a very good question. But first, “How do we define leadership?” By efficiency? Endurance? Training? Self-assertiveness? The ability to influence others? While all these are good and useful qualities, are they all that is needed to make a good safe leader? The ability to lead people can be used for good, but History shows that when used in the wrong way, it is very dangerous and can create much evil. That is why my answer to the question, “Is there a difference between a leader and a follower?” is a resounding “NO!”.
A surgeon is given knowledge about the human body as well as how to use chemicals and certain tools in order to heal it. Along with his license to practice medicine, he is required to pledge allegiance to the apothecary oath which binds him to use this precious but dangerous knowledge solely for the goal of healing. As a leader in medicine, he has to agree to obey the oath.
Any field of science or even of politics binds its practitioners to certain rules. In fact, the more power we are given to weld, the more we need to learn to obey certain ethical rules that keep us in check so that we use this power for the purpose it was intended to. It is even true of government as it has to work within the framework of The Constitution.
So in conclusion, one cannot be a truly good and safe leader unless he has first learned to submit himself to the higher principles that rule his field of practice. This should be good advice for any field, company, or society.
April 02nd, 2016 At the Oregon State Fire Corps Conference. We were honored with the visit of Tiger Shmitterndorf's presentation: From the X Box to the Alarm Box: http://www.tigerschmittendorf.com/
I spend a major part of my life writing and teaching. Many of my classes are kept in a folder on my computer. Doing some much needed clean-up this week I fell on some material I used to teach that I promptly deleted. “Some people from long before would be somewhat surprised at what I teach now!”, I thought to myself. Not that what I taught before was necessarily diametrically opposite to what I teach now, but as happens (and should happen) to a person when they grow from childhood, to their teen years and finally to their adulthood, my philosophy and viewpoint have matured.
I remembered how I handled my parents, my first girlfriend, my first students, and my first children. It got me thinking that it is a nice thing to be able to look at the past and say, “Oh, what a stupid jerk I was ...I”. All that said, I must also admit that some of the best decisions of my life were taken during my teenage years but in those days, these moments of brightness were few and far between. Life is such that In general, if we cannot look at yesterday and say to ourselves, “Oh, what a stupid jerk I was!”, we have not grown. We have remained the same and sad to say, are apt to repeat the same errors again.
Something practiced in many companies and organisations is ‘debriefing’. After an assignment, people are ask to think, talk, and assess the experience and maybe learn from it. This allows the person and the company to assess their performance and identify areas of weakness and needed change. When applying these concepts to life in general, the ancients used to call this introspective exercise, ‘The Arithmetic of the Soul.’
To look back at the past with a sense of shame and remorse is actually a good thing. It is a sign that we have learned, that we have grown, and that we have matured. To make mistakes is part of our humanity, but the the real tragedy of life is when we, year after year, continue to repeat the same mistakes without ever learning from them. Maybe King Solomon was thinking about this enlightening maturing principle of life when he said, “But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day. (Proverbs 4:18)
Patrick G. Lumbroso
Estacada Rural Fire District No. 69
Station Phone: 503.630.7712
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