Recently, as fire personnel with caravans of heavy equipment rolled out of the local hills and headed off to fight another blaze or return to their stations, I took a moment to appreciate their courage. To move toward the fires and into the danger zone took a selflessness I am not sure I have. Due to the actions of firefighters and law enforcement personnel who coordinated the safety effort, my way of life was preserved. Clearly we can see and be proud of what those men and women accomplished and respect the dedication and sacrifice it took to battle an unpredictable enemy through smoke, heavy protective equipment and blazing heat. I am truly grateful to them for taking action and it motivated me to think about how I could also act bravely in some way.
Fortunately no human lives were lost locally, but in the Los Angeles area the story was different. Loss of life, accidental or otherwise is hard to accept. When someone is killed helping others, it is felt by even the most removed observer who is connected to that individual only by common humanness. This connection is maintained by empathy, an appreciation of the pain another person might feel. We would not want to feel the same pain so we protect each other from it. This sense of guardianship of another's well being is what prevents us from deliberately hurting them. Sometimes this empathy is not present or it has broken down. Neurological damage is sometimes the cause of this disconnection. Impulse control problems, mental disorders, drug use and childhood trauma can cause the breakdown as well. What happens when this empathy connection is broken can be ugly and harder to deal with.
It is too early to make any definite determinations about how the recent fires started and I will certainly leave that up to the fire experts. In recent days however, myself and others have wondered out loud about the intention behind fire-setting . Fire-setters are not all the same in terms of their motivation.
Many fires are not set with malicious intent. Some are caused accidentally or have natural causes. Obsessive fascination with fire and a lack of impulse control motivates some fire-setting behavior. Those who set fires for the intense euphoria that is derived from it have pyromania. This diagnosis is described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. Arsonists willfully and maliciously destroy private or public property , often for revenge or monetary gain. The behavior is inexcusable and at the same time these people need a lot of help fast.
One of the ways in which I have been inspired to action is to approach people with the awareness that I am more similar to them than I am different. I hope this attitude helps me avoid blind-spots. From this perspective, I can stay connected through empathy. I can recommend help and treatment to those who need it. I may be able to spot their needs earlier and potentially prevent pain and suffering through early detection and intervention.
We must look the good and bad aspects of ourselves and our neighbors square in the eye. Fire-setters do not grow up in vacuums. They come from communities, families and social circles. They have teachers, coaches and teammates. Unsupervised fire-setting by children is not normal behavior and may signal pent-up anger or deep psychological pain. It may be a way of asking for help. Peer pressure can be used in a positive way to stamp out delinquent behavior that is meant to show off or impress friends. All of us can move toward the danger zone and take action in some way, and possibly put out a fire before it starts.