…did that title draw you in?
Good. I’ve gathered you here today to ask for your perspective.
I went to drop off an application at a fire station this afternoon. I have been toying with the idea of becoming a firefighter. It is definitely a lifestyle–and for all its glory, it can be isolating, and emotionally and physically taxing. I’m not sure if I have what it takes, but dropping off a resume in person seemed like a logical step to take in order to find out.
The walls of the station were plastered with pictures of those currently serving their district. A hierarchy of photographs met my eyes as I nervously waited to talk to the fire chief, clutching the packet containing the summary of my life in front of my chest and resisting the urge to shrink into a “defensive” body posture.
By the time the chief made his way to me from the other end of the hall, every ounce of confidence I’d walked in the building with had seeped out the door. Emotionally, I was running down the road towards home, throwing answers to his questions like paper airplanes over my shoulder, hoping that they landed in capable hands.
The one that really had me tongue-tied, however, was this: “Why do you want to be a firefighter?”
In the span of 1.5 seconds, I overthought this question a hundred times around the sun and back. Instead of taking that time to pause, breathe, and collect myself like any self-possessed person would, I thought through the litany of honest-but-not-so-palatable-to-a-hiring-fire-chief reasons which had brought fire into my awareness.
Because I am an idealistic, romantic sort of person, and firefighters embody “helpfulness” and “goodness” by my measure? Too broad, too moralistic, too…embarrassingly honest of an answer to merit being honest about! Saying “I think you get paid to embody everything that’s right with humanity” would freak any decent person out.
Because the hum of the capitalist machine sounds menacing and I don’t think I’m cutthroat enough to hack it in the business world? What am I, some kind of coward?
Because saving lives and serving one’s community is the “most important” thing a person can spend their time doing? Who am I, Mother Theresa?
Because visibility matters and maybe some little girl will grow up thinking she can do anything, including fighting fires? Do I really want to play the “feminist card” fifteen seconds into getting to know someone?
All I managed to get out after the 1.5-second-long panic attack was a mumbled “it just makes sense.” Yes, “It Just Makes Sense” for president, 2020!
I did my best not to run out the door when the chief’s body language said he was done patiently questioning me, though he did give me some very encouraging signals in terms of getting a call back–but I am still thinking about his question and I am still not sure what I would have said differently.
Why does anyone want to be a firefighter? Why does anyone want to be anything? I’m willing to bet the reason Chief B became a firefighter is not the reason he continues to hang in there every day and do the good work. What I wanted to ask him was, “Why are you still a firefighter?” Would I want to know the truth anyway? What good is the truth, when the truth is messy?
Of course, I would never advise anyone to lie during an interview, no matter how informal. And though I berated myself for settling on “it just makes sense” as my answer to The Number One Question an employer can ask an applicant, I am slowly starting to stand behind it. I could have told him my whole life story: why getting strong in my body was an act of reclamation after being raped, why fighting fire was the most radical act of feminism I could think of, how fundamentally important it is to me that a culture of strong “masculine” energy is balanced by the “feminine,” how much I hope to learn from a resilient group of folks dedicated to real, tangible service. I could have told him all of that.
But at the end of the day, what would that change? What good are words to a man who’s seen some shit? Words aside, what good is honesty?
Before me stood an honest man, waiting to be lied to. I have no choice, now, but to look deeper at my own motives, so that I might lie as honestly as I can in the future.
I hope to have a “real” interview so I can sit and hold space in receptive silence, rather than rushing to answer as a means of pacifying a question. That’s not what real questions are for. And besides, that’s not what community service is about. It’s the process; the connection. Not the punch line.
I am learning, slowly, where to hold my ideals within my mouth so that they do not swallow the person in front of me. I took a big step today. Growth is slow, but everything worthwhile takes time.