To build a fire: The spiritual art of socialization


Building relationship is much like building a fire.  You have to turn to it, and ask yourself what it needs to catch fire and then to flourish.

image enhanced from original

– by B. T. Newberg

“You don’t really think that’s going to work do you?” said my dad.  I had arranged the twigs, kindling, and birch bark in a tepee, just exactly so, and he came along and tossed newspaper and wood haphazardly all over my precious creation.  I could feel irritation rising.  “This from the guy who says he’s uncomfortable in the woods,” I shot back.  He looked stung.  At that moment, I knew the conversation had taken a wrong turn.

We were up in the North Woods of Minnesota for a family event at a lakeside cabin thirty-minutes’ drive from the nearest tar road.  My dad, who feels claustrophobic in the forest, had graciously consented to come along at mom’s request.  Building the fire in the yard was a job we both volunteered for – a great opportunity for father-son bonding, right?  But straight off the bat, the “bonding” was driving us both crazy.

Family bonding is just one example of a larger topic I want to talk about today: socialization.  Interacting with others, whether through conversation or shared activities, presents an excellent opportunity for spiritual practice.  The art of listening, empathizing, and perspective-taking can be a powerful means of growth.  At the same time, it can go wrong.

Each time my father put a new piece of wood on the infant fire, I carefully moved it so it wouldn’t block off the airflow.  Meanwhile, I was noting how he had to control everything, had to be the “alpha male” – perhaps especially because he felt uncomfortable in the woods.  Aha, I thought, maybe he’s over-compensating for his lack of confidence in this environment.  But it wasn’t just him, it was me too.  The more he tried to control the fire, the more I wanted it to be my fire.  What irritated me most was that his haphazard technique actually seemed to be working.  The more he piled on the wood, the more the flame leaped up.  At that point, I conceded the battle and went inside the cabin.

What could have been a bonding experience turned out to be just another chore.  What could have been a moment of spiritual growth was anything but.  What had gone wrong?

Cavemen campfire

The tradition of socialization around the fire surely goes back to the earliest days of our species.

image enhanced from original

Turning, daimons, and the goddess Ate

Existential theologian Martin Buber calls the failure of two individuals to fully engage with each other a mismeeting.  Inhibited by self-centered preoccupations, they remain isolated individuals.  In contrast, if two turn to each other completely, then there may arise between them a presence that is neither the one nor the other, but a genuine meeting.  This is the oft-quoted I-Thou relationship for which Buber is famous.  It is also the bonding that could have happened between my father and I, but didn’t.

A meeting requires a double turning: a turning away from self-centered preoccupation and a turning toward the other.  What held my dad and I back was the self-centered need to control the fire and whatever it may have represented.  Fixated on this need, we failed to see what the other needed.  A better approach would start by turning away from this preoccupation.  This does not mean ignoring one’s feelings, but rather seeing them in the big picture.  To turn away is to make room for something other than preoccupation.

Of course, turning away from such preoccupation would necessitate being aware of it in the first place.  Aye, there’s the rub: so often we are unconscious of our feelings until it’s too late.  That is why mindfulness of the Five +1 is so important.  By paying attention not only to the outer world (through the Five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch) but also to our thoughts and feelings (the +1 of the Five +1), we can keep better tabs on our emotional state and thus on our readiness to turn toward the other.  If we are not conscious of our emotions, they tend to dominate our behavior.

An internal state or structure that dominates to the exclusion of all others is what existential psychologist Rollo May calls a daimon.  This term he takes from the ancient Greek word for a spirit, which originally meant any divine being.  To be dominated by a daimon is thus to be in the grip of a god.  Like possession by a spirit, emotion can possess us.  This is wonderful when it is a positive emotion, such as joy or compassion.  On the other hand, there are less positive emotions.  To be possessed by the daimon of control is to be temporarily incapable of relinquishing control. My father and I were kept apart by our respective daimons.

The way to escape possession is to become aware of it.  Once raised to consciousness through mindful awareness, the daimon loses possession of us.  It flitters off into the shadows from whence it came.  Or to put it more precisely, it assumes a balanced, as opposed to dominating, role in our psyche.  The balanced state enables normal rational consciousness as well as the ability to look past preoccupations and see the other person.

A daimon played a role in one of the most famous mismeetings of Western literature, that of Achillles and King Agamemnon in Homer’s Iliad.  The conflict between the two is finally resolved when the king relinquishes the woman he stole from Achilles.  Instead of admitting wrong, however, he explains his actions by claiming his mind was clouded by Ate, the personification of madness, delusion, and infatuation:

Zeus, Fate, and the Fury stalking through the night,
they are the ones who drove that savage madness in my heart,
that day in assembly when I seized Achilles’ prize–
on my own authority, true, but what could I do?
A god impels all things to their fulfillment  (Fagles translation, 19.101-105)

Ate (rendered here as “madness”) is a daimon who takes away the wits of men and sends them down a path of reckless impulse.  After being cast out of Olympus for causing trouble, she wandered the world, treading on the heads of people rather than on the ground.  Agamemnon claims the gods drove her into his heart, and that’s why he did what he did to offend.  Is this a way of dodging responsibility?  Maybe, but I don’t think so.  The king is actually saving face in a culturally-acceptable context.  For him to plead madness is to say he will not do it again, for he would never have done it were it not for that divine influence.  In any case, he is turning from his self-centered preoccupation and toward genuine dialogue with Achilles.

The way to counter the power of Ate, according to myth, is by that of the Litae, which personify prayer.  The Litae are daughters of Zeus who follow Ate, but being old and lame of foot they are easily outrun by the one they follow.  If Ate can be seen as self-centered preoccupation and the Litae as turning away from this and toward dialogue (which is akin to prayer), then the advice agrees with Buber.  The spiritual task is to turn from that which consumes us by mindfully cultivating a more balanced state, then turning toward the other in a spirit of genuine communication.

A meditation on mindfulness of Ate can be found here.

To build a fire

Building relationship is a lot like building a fire.  You can’t just do it with half a mind, like turning on a light switch.  You have to turn to it, and ask yourself what it needs to catch fire and then to flourish.  You have to stoke it to keep it going.  And when you’ve done that, you’ve got more than just a source of warmth.  You have a presence, a flickering, burning, wonderful presence.  In the case of my father and I, the wood caught fire, but the relationship was sputtering.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the only relationship built that weekend.  My family and I enjoyed three days of meaningful bonding in the North Woods.  The fire-building incident proved the exception rather than the rule.  On the last day, we worked together to plant a garden in front of the cabin in memory of Grandma and Granddad, who had both passed on in the last year.  Quietly helping out toward a common goal, turned away from self-centeredness and toward each other, we created a presence.  The garden was an outward sign of it, but that’s not the presence I’m talking about.  Rather, it was a presence between us, a palpable sense of communion.  Without self-centered preoccupation, without possession by daimons, without the troublesome goddess Ate, relationship flourished.  It was the I-Thou relationship of which Buber spoke.  It was the presence of the Litae.  It was a genuine meeting.

Memorial Garden outside Cabin at Ely

Quietly helping out toward a common goal, we bonded by building a memorial garden for Grandma and Granddad outside the cabin.

photo by B. T. Newberg

One Comment on “To build a fire: The spiritual art of socialization

  1. Pingback: So a polytheist, a Voodoo priest, and a Humanist walk into the woods… | Humanistic Paganism

%d bloggers like this: