Guard Your Fire

As we drove through the green hills of Kenya’s Rift Valley, a taxi minivan or “matatu” roared around us and into the oncoming traffic lane.

Directly ahead was a blind curve: if that curve proved to hold an oncoming vehicle, the driver of that matatu and all the dozen or more passengers he carried would surely die, either by collision or by plunging thousands of feet to the valley floor below.

It was an appalling choice the driver had made, putting his own life and the lives of his passengers at needless risk just to shave a few seconds off his trip time.

“Chunga maisha!” my uncle–a longtime East Africa expat–shouted to the windshield in exasperation as they lurched past.

“Chunga maisha?”

“That’s a Swahili expression that means ‘guard or preserve life,'” he explained. “The idea that life is precious, and must be tended and protected, not carelessly jeopardized.”

Here in the West, we are not likely to risk life and limb this way.

But what we do wantonly endanger, over and over again, is our own fire.

It begins innocently enough. After marrying and having children, you begin the long pour:

You pour your time and effort and heart into their lives, attending to their needs and wants as best you can, with little regard for your own.

After all, who are you to desire “fulfillment,” “happiness,” “joy”?

Best put your head down, shoulder the harness, and give relentless. Perhaps, if you give long enough, you will win yourself some praise and toleration.

Through this long neglect, you end up killing the part of you that asks, dreams, wants, aspires.

In so tending the fires of others, your own fire goes out.

You feel the cold ash filling your chest, and you set your jaw. You console yourself: at least you are providing for your family. At least through your work and sacrifice THEY are happy.

But you’re wrong about your purpose. You’re not just some blunt instrument of protection and provision for your family. Your happiness matters. Your failings, the things you’ve done and not done… none of it disqualifies you from the pursuit of joy.

And you’re wrong about your own fire being irrelevant. They need you lit. The deep reaches of your fatherhood, husbandhood… they cannot be cracked open and accessed without heat. Your wife and children will never experience you in your entirety, never know the full range of gift you have to give until you find a way to come alive again… a way to relight the forges.

You are the driver, and you do not travel alone. This life you’re living–this matatu minivan–is filled with passengers: your wife, your children, your friends, employees, customers… insofar as they are fed and warmed by your fire, you hold them in your hands.

In short, your fire is not some small thing, not some negotiable aspect to be spurned and cast off with casual disregard. You neglect your own fire to the detriment of yourself AND the ones you love.

You must tend your fire.

Guard it.

Protect it.

Cherish it as though it were the sun, as though it were the energy source that powers the entire planet.

For that is exactly what it is.

Carve out time for solitude each week. Time alone to think, plan, breathe. Make these hours sacred and inviolate.

Inject your life with the practices you know will re-enchant you: meditation, journaling, those long, muddy walks.

Set and lash yourself to projects you know you can win: small victories of cleaning the garage, switching providers, of righting these little ships. Remind yourself through ACTION that you are a man of ability, swinging your axe to clear an ever-widening circle of power.

Pepper your life with carrots and rewards, like an advent calendar stuffed with hidden chocolates. Fill your week with adventures big and small that strike the flint in your chest, make your eyes spark with anticipation when you see them upcoming.

Remember: “serving” your family by artlessly offering yourself up to be consumed and emptied by their need does not serve them.

True service is finding the fire, the vision, and the courage to LEAD them. Not to “withstand” their demands, but to CREATE a shared life that compels and inspires them… that plunges you all, together, into the mystery.

It all begins with you.

So chunga moto: tend your fire.

Find the ember, blow on the coals.

Guard your flame.

Protect the fire that powers your life.

No one else can do it for you.

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