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Thursday, April 3, 2014

"When Your Life is on Fire" (Erik Kolbell)

TITLE: When Your Life Is on Fire: Thirteen Extraordinary People Answer One Simple Question
AUTHOR: Erik Kolbell
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, (248 pages).

What are the things or activities people assign ultimate value to? What do they mean to our own lives? What can we learn from others and apply to our own lives? These three questions are dealt with in this book of interviews with 13 public figures, entertainers, accomplished professionals, samaritans, spiritualists, war veterans, artists, musicians, and others to capture a slice of life.  The title of the book is revealing: "When your life is on fire, what would you save?" It begs another question: What do we value most in life? What is that one or two things we will grab and go when the fire is at the door of our own life?

Erik Kolbell, a psychotherapist and former minister of Social Justice at Riverside Church in New York City has grouped these thirteen individuals into four categories. The first category is about "Seekers" of the more important things in life. Rabbi Arthur Waskow (founder of Shalom Center in Philadelphia) seeks to be a channel for peace with people groups and communities, as part of his personal "midrash" or commentary about life. Mariah Britton, having experienced the benefits of being mentored tries to pay it forward by dedicating her life to the spiritual developments of adolescents and adults. A poet herself, she sees her life as learning to infuse art with religion, and prayers with action. The third seeker described is Kenjitsu Nakagaki, a Buddhist priest who sees the most important value of life is living as a human being.

The second category is "Artists" that puts actors, poets, and musicians together. Actor and screenwriter Alan Alda values reality is about embracing both the known as well as the unknown with openness and vigor. Inspired by the lives of Marie Curie, Yuan Long Ping, Alda sees the significance of life that lies in the pursuit of worthy causes. Poet John Alexander provides raw honesty in his paintings that reflect his own calling not just to make art but to live it. Jazz violinist from Michigan, Regina Carter sees music as both expression of it as well as the receiving of it. In expressing it, one gives it joy and meaning. In receiving it, one accords respect. Harvard Medical School student and musician, Christopher Lim sees the attitude of learning and unlearning as an outworking of faith and living.

The third category of "Iconoclasts" shows the depiction of life through various symbols and imagery. Fred Newman is both a soundman as well as a storyteller. Believing that life is about adopting the disposition of "silence, stillness," for the present, and "attentiveness" to the world beyond. As long as he lives, communications is his calling. Kolbell's most difficult interview was with Tao Porchon-Lynch, a 95-year-old Yoga instructor, simply because she was physically "elusive." Although her name suggests a Buddhist or Taoism origin, her beliefs are more Hinduism with a focus on "oneness" with self. Without equating Christianity with Buddhist thought or Hinduism beliefs, Kolbell is able to hone in on a common theme: the inherent value of people. The late Cathrine Kellison, once a high-school dropout was a popular member of the faculty at New York University teaching media studies. She was an adventurer, a wanderer, a risk taker who sees journaling as an essential part of capturing one's life.

The final category is about "Survivors." People like Jane Pauley, former host of the TODAY show sees moderation as the key to life.  Don Lange, a veteran of the Afghan War survives the effects of a bomb blast, struggles with memory loss, PTSD, and other traumatic emotions. He reflects on his experience and prefers not to dwell on the "why" of existence but on the existential reality we are in right now. Brenda Berkman, the first woman to serve in the New York City Fire Department as well as one of the first responders to September 11, is a literal example of one who would break down the door amid the approaching fire, that she may save some.  Her expression of rage against the fires of evil as well as tears for the demise take second place as she lets the Beatitudes light up the fire in her.

So What?

Reading this book reminds me of Studs Terkel's interviews with working professionals in "Working." While Terkel's interviews tend to be relatively more verbatim, the interviews in this book has a lot more reflection on things that matter. The thirteen individuals give readers not just food for thought but also motivation for action. Actions with regards to learning, to working faithfully, to living peacefully, to enduring adversity and to expressing one's gifts and talents. In our world of problem solving and technological advancements, sometimes we see so much of the world outside that we fail to contemplate a bigger story growing inside humanity. Why must we let a fire trigger answers to our deepest held beliefs and values? Why wait until an emergency before we start to invest in the more important things in life?

Although each of us have our unique identities, we all have a common humanity. We do not need to be a seeker, an artist, an iconoclast, or a survivor in order to appreciate life. We are already in this life. Perhaps, some of us may fit in more than one category. Perhaps, there is no category yet. Perhaps, there is a little of each in everyone of us. The point is, keep searching. Keep looking out for others even as we look after our own selves. The world is larger than our world. We need to care for others. At the same time, let us not forget that to help others, we first need to take care of our own houses. For a house built on solid ground will offer better shelter and hospitality to others in need. We all have various fires of life. Some of us have been burnt badly in the past. Others have never encountered any danger. Still, there are many who have never even understood that it is very human to be driven by fire. If this book can be that "fire," it can very well save us a lot of heartache and grief.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and JRB Communications in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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