Amid the debris of 2020, there are lessons for us all to learn. One memory that has been instructive for me happened during the Sumner Grade Fire in late summer last year.
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon last September, I was driving to my home in Bonney Lake from Seattle. As I turned onto State Route 410, my heart sank as I noticed dark clouds filling the air. Where I would normally see the stunning view of Mount Rainier, the majestic skyline was barely visible on this afternoon drive. Ominous clouds blanketed beauty. The visibility got darker as I approached the hill going up to Bonney Lake from Sumner. At the bottom of that hill, all motorists were directed to a detour. The detour felt more like a parking lot than a driving route. All side roads were jammed with cars while the traffic lights on the side roads were without power. The chaos was palpable, and it was eerie. We were all stuck in the Sumner Valley with nothing to do but have our eyes fixed on the fiery wildfire that was out of control. The wind would soon carry the fire across the highway.
From the valley, I looked up the hill and saw a growing orange ball of fire making newly built homes look extremely vulnerable. It felt wrong to watch such destructive power. But my eyes could not turn away. Then it got worse. A house on the hill eventually caught fire and began to burn rapidly. My eyes were then drawn to neighbors on both sides of the detour road. They were helping each other get on their roofs and spray their house shingles with water. They saw what was happening on the hills and knew where the wind was blowing. The fire was coming their way. Panic and fear filled their eyes.
What normally takes me 10 minutes to get home took me three hours. When I arrived, my wife and I realized within minutes that our neighborhood had just entered Level Three of the fire alert. We needed to leave our house immediately.
My wife and I made a plan. She scrambled together a quick dinner for our kids while I packed up our essential belongings. Notice that word essential. I remember putting out all our suitcases in our master bedroom and then thinking to myself, “What do we need?” I was forced to think about what was utterly essential in that moment. Suddenly, my new shoes did not matter, nor did that jacket that I loved. I quickly packed our insurance documents, family photos, critical work documents, clothes for my kids and their teddy bears. Most of our material belongings lost their value in that moment.
I packed the suitcases. The kids finished their dinner, and we then drove to my pastor’s home. On the fly, he offered to have us stay at their home until our home evacuation lifted. Three days later, we were able to re-enter our house as the fire was under control.
As we slowly emerge from the rubble and shadows of 2020, that experience of evacuating our home stands out as a microcosm of what I have felt the last year and a half. Utter chaos, fear and the ubiquitous feeling that the world is out of control. I pray to God that we never have to go through something like that again. Our home was untouched by the Sumner Grade fire, and we are profoundly grateful. And as much as I want to move on from that dreadful experience, there are two thoughts that I keep coming back to. One is the moment when I was looking at the four large suitcases and deciding what was utterly essential. This, I believe, is the question we all have been forced to ask ourselves this last year and a half. What matters? What really counts in our life? What can we not live without?
If nothing else, 2020 and its remaining residue has shone a spotlight on what we consider essential. When my family and I evacuated our home in the fire crisis, we all drove away in our van leaving our car behind. Having my wife and kids with me mattered more than hanging on to our car. When you feel that all will be lost, values have a way of bubbling to the surface. Pandemic life has certainly shown us this much: People are more important than things.
The crisis also showed me that generosity and grace can provide the antidote to the alarm and chaos we experience in our hearts. And if there is one thing we all need in a world that now seems meaner than it was pre-pandemic, it is grace and generosity. My family and I needed the kindness of my pastor and his wife in that time. Their generosity and grace showed me not only what I need but what I can be to others in need.
No doubt, we all feel a hangover of confusion and turmoil from 2020. But in my quieter moments, I ask myself what will help us heal from the hurt and loss we have endured these past months? The question of what is essential has provided a compass for the way forward. A mentor of mine reminds me, “Experience is not man’s best teacher. Experience reflected upon is man’s best teacher.” If ever there were a societal moment for reflection, this is ours. We would do well to not miss this moment.
It will be easy to forget these lessons as life gets a bit more comfortable. Maybe it’s these kinds of questions that will help us move forward and enable us to be more caring and more understanding. Ultimately, looking out for our neighbor as we would want others to look out for us. If we are going to flourish again as a society, we will only do so by leaning on each other and looking out for each other. We have learned too much, lost too much and seen too much from pandemic living to merely go back to normal.