You Don’t Have to Be A Targaryen: A Reflection on Fire

Post by Mira Pravitasari:

I walked through fire once. Unscathed. Not perfectly so, but changed, in a more pertinent way than a couple of scars on my toes. I have become braver.

I was joining a social internship program at the university whose selection process involved a weekend of training with the marine. It was not as bad as I thought it would be as I think they had made the training a lot easier and I was glad for it. Despite that, I did many things I normally would never do, let alone did it all in one weekend. I ran for miles in the dawn when the mist and the cold hadn’t been disrupted by the sun. The run pleasantly reminded me of the Curahee run in Band of Brothers. I lied, rolled forward and sideways, crawled, drenched, and got soaked through with mud till it dried up on my skin. I rowed through a lake when it rained cats and dogs. And when the night fell, the challenge coming up was to walk through fire.

It’s not a metaphor nor an obscure analogy. The challenge is literally walking through fire. In the middle of the night, at the center field of the dorms, the runway was prepared, of charcoal, wet and cold by kerosene. One marine officer flicked a burning match and it caught on, lighting up the whole ten meters of black coals, enveloping them, creating flames as high as the officer’s waist, caressing the piece of cloth that covered his upper thighs.

There were a hundred of us but the officers separated us in a way that we could not see the others doing the pomp before we do it ourselves. So other than hearing occasional grunts, weak protests, and the rattles of chars on fire, I could not tell what’s going on. When it was my turn, I was frightened for my well-being. What if the fire caught on my shirt? It’d also be painful walking through those spiky burning charcoal, wouldn’t it?

The urge to step back and turn around grew inside of me, like forest fire it spread through my body and I froze. Fear is a powerful thing and it’s not all in the mind. Antonio Damasio, in his book Self Comes to Mind, describes fear as a force that ignites a region in the brain called the Amygdala. It causes the brain either to send commands to the body to curl up, freeze, and prepare for a fight, or to increase the amounts of adrenaline in the body so you can run away and endure the pain from a long run. Out of these two impulses, the former won. I can only froze. It was frightening, I couldn’t make myself move.

But the marine officers once again called and he led me to soak my feet in a bucket of water. He told me to shout my name loud as I could. It gave a secret ritual feeling in the warm night air. I did so. My own voice brought me back to where I was. I shouted it loud and clear and I shouted it in the name of God for I felt helpless knowing that eventually I’d have to go and walk the walk. The officer wouldn’t take a no for an answer. It’s only a matter of taking that first step, which would lead to the second and the third. And then the only way out was to walk the rest of it.

One marine officer splashed more kerosene on the already burning runway and God did the flames go up fervently. I stepped out with all my might and a pair of soaked feet. I took a giant leap but not rushed, and I felt the texture of the coals against my bare skin. The soaking was an immense help as it wasn’t hot at first. It took me three strides until I felt the heat and it was scary all over again, but I told you, the only way out then was to walk the rest of it.

I did exactly that, regaining control over my body, not rushing at all so the charcoal wouldn’t hurt my toes. Reaching the far end of the runway and stepping onto a wet towel, I felt a huge relief. I also felt triumphant. I walked through fire. The scary part was over. It turned out not to be such a big deal and I might have been safe all along (but in my defense the flame was very intimidating).

In hindsight, it gave me one of the most important lesson in my life. Things that you never do in life tend to look like that burning runway. It’s scary, looks dangerous, you might get hurt. The first step you’ll take will be hard. You’ll need to muster every ounce of courage inside of you. You need to take precautions like the soaking of the feet. And then the beginner’s luck take over from that first step. You’ll think it’s not so bad. Yet, after three long strides, you’ll start to feel the heat. You will be desperate to get out. You need to calm yourself because if you panic then you’ll lay yourself on the line. You need to take measured steps in order to sort things out again. The panic will urge you to do stupid things like rushing and running, but your sense have to control that urge so steadily you can get a hold of the situation. Then, and only then you reached a place, safe from danger and you’ll look back and feel great about taking the risks of that first step. You now have a story to tell, a new found courage, and a profound lesson that you always hear from many great individuals who have faced their own fires and flames.

Now every time I’m afraid of the fire, I breathe, soak my feet, and take that first step.

On Fire