Life is Short and Precious
Ask a first responder, “What do you do?” Most will reply, “I try to help on the worst day of someone’s life.”
Whether you work in fire, EMS, law enforcement, or a related field, we are exposed to the greatest human suffering at the highest degree. We swim in it every day. When we arrive on scene to reduce harm, we cannot help but bear witness to the greatest tragedies people encounter. We experience the loss of one’s home, all of one’s worldly possessions. Severe injury. We even witness loss of life: of victims, and sometimes even our own friends, family, and colleagues who stand the line alongside us.
We all handle facing this constant drumbeat of tragedy differently. For many, we push it away, burying ourselves in training or work. For some, we anesthetize ourselves with alcohol or drugs, with video games or TV. Anything not to look.
Surprisingly for some, Buddhists have a different approach.
We lean in.
The Buddhist practice of maranasati deliberately contemplates death. We focus on annica — the impermanence of everything, reminding ourselves constantly that nothing lasts, including everything we love the most.
This may seem morbid, but in practice, it has the opposite effect. When we remind ourselves of the shortness and fragility of our lives, it emphasizes how precious and incredible life actually is, allowing us to not sweat the small stuff and celebrate the wonder of everyday things that we can easily lose: enjoying a meal, taking a nap, looking out the window on a beautiful day (or even a rainy day!), being with our loved ones. When was the last time you were thankful for the ability to walk? To breathe?
Such a practice is of incredible benefit to first responders, who have to cope with impermanence more than most. Life is precious and short, do we really want to hold a grudge against our brother firefighter who forgot it was their turn to cook tonight? Do we really want to be angry about some political event we are powerless to change? Should we waste our time glued to social media when the time we have to spend with our real-life friends is so short? By leaning into, instead of pushing away from, impermanence, the tragedy we witness on scene can be a powerful reminder of the beauty and wonder of not just our own, but everybody’s lives.
The 13th century Chinese Buddhist poet Wu-Men wrote a wonderful poem that sums this up:
Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.
As first responders, we are already doing everything we can to stop the suffering of the world. None of us do this to get rich or famous. One of the few perks we may be missing is the reminder this work provides of how short, wondrous, precious, and beautiful or own existence really is.
Myke Cole is an aspiring chaplain in the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition at the NY Zen Center for Contemplative Care. He is a firefighter in the Hudson Valley and also served with a department in Metairie, Louisiana.