What Material Tragedy Really Teaches Us

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Cover Photo by Yaoqi LAI on Unsplash

Or, you are who you are when the brown stuff hits the spinny thing.

Or, in the case of Joe and I, you are who you are when your truck burns down in your driveway at five in the morning.

True story. Happened just this summer.

But before I get into that, I’d like to point out all of the material tragedy happening all around us, what with the climate of the entire world going nuts right now. Massive hurricanes, earthquakes, and forest fires are causing people to lose their valuable assets and homes–even entire towns are being laid to waste. Talk about material tragedy. It is heartbreaking.

What are we to do in the face of such profound material destruction?

I say, we learn.

But learn what, exactly?

Learn who we really are and what really matters to us. More on this in the “My Epiphany: Finding Middle Ground” section.

How I see it, Joe’s new truck burning down in our driveway this summer is just a small micro chasm of the world-wide material destruction going on. But micro chasms have a way of opening our awareness to the greater macro chasm, which is exactly what happened for me.

The process of losing my husband’s truck gave me an epiphany that changed my life and I’m hoping that sharing this epiphany with you will help you process through your own material tragedy, no matter how great.

The Morning Our Truck Burned Down

The sharp, incessant ring of the doorbell woke my husband and I. The doorbell was accompanied by someone pounding on the door, which sounded like it was going to break down any second.

I frantically wiped away my eye boogers and saw it was only 4:30 am. I looked over at Joe, who was in a panic putting on his robe yelling, “ WHO IS IT?? WHO THE FUCK IS IT?”

“I don’t know!” I kept shouting as I chased him down the hall.

He kept repeating the question until we heard someone on the other side of our front door say,

“You’ve got to get out here, man! Your truck is on fire!”

Joe flung the door open to find our neighbor, Travis, wide-eyed and in his skivvies. We all ran outside and were awestruck at the sight. The entire bed of Joe’s new Tundra was in flames. The 40-foot ladders on top of the ladder rack were melting in half, and the canopy was disintegrating before our eyes.

The heat from the driveway permeated the front lawn, so Joe and Travis moved to the sidewalk while I sprinted back inside to get more clothes on and grab our safe. My heart hadn’t pumped so fast since that time I almost died in a stampede.

Before I could make it back to the front door, Joe herded me and the dogs to the back yard in a frenzy, ordering us to stay back there until the fire was out. I obeyed and sat in the backyard with the dogs and the safe for a total of about 15 seconds before I thought, “Screw this.”

I gave the doggies one last belly scratch before busting through the front door to meet Joe and our neighbors on the sidewalk, who were just standing around in awe as the flames grew higher and higher.

The fire chief, who lives just down the road, showed up first. All by his lonesome, he shucked on his fireman jacket, grabbed his fire extinguisher, walked right up to the truck and stared blasting away inside the bed. His courage was amazing and inspiring.

Except for when I saw how the fire extinguisher hardly even made a dent. It turned out to be a little underwhelming, actually.

By this time, the fire truck arrived along with random neighbors we’ve never even seen before. The toddler boys that live across from us were watching from their second story window, bouncing up and down with excitement at the real-life fireman putting out a real-life fire. In our tragedy, their innocence seemed worlds away.

It took over an hour to get the fire extinguished and get all the melted equipment out of the back of the truck, which littered our front yard. It was a total, tragic mess.

Here are some pictures of the aftermath:

Needless to say, we ordered the biggest friggin’ fire extinguisher we could find on Amazon before we fell asleep that night.

And I bet you’ll never guess how this fire started…

Get this: spontaneous combustion.

I know. Crazy, right?

In his canopy, there were several garbage bags stuffed with oil soaked rags and paper from a large deck he finished staining just the day before. These rags spontaneously combusted as they dried (the drying process for oil is different than evaporation in that it creates its own heat when it dries).

We’ve heard of stuff like that happening, but thought it was going to be fine in the back of the canopy at night time when it is cool out.

Apparently not.

It was an accident, pure and simple. But even so, we were left fantasizing of some malicious hoodlum lighting it on fire in the dead of night just so we could have someone other than ourselves to blame.

In these stressful and tragic situations, I gravitate toward two archetypal responses: the Wallower and the Performer. Let me introduce them to you so you can see which one you tend to gravitate toward. Then we’ll talk about what it looks like to combine the two.

The Wallower and the Performer

My fall back archetype is usually the Performer, who, in the face of such tragedy, thinks their role is to teach everyone else how to handle tough situations. The Performer does this by shoving down their own uncomfortable emotions caused by the event and plastering on a facade of empathetic smiles and encouraging words.

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If only all performers were this easy to spot.                                                                                                                                       Photo by A. L. on Unsplash

Performers think, “Yes, this tragedy sucks. But at least everyone watching me can witness my leadership, humility, and faith in this trying situation and be inspired to be better people because of it.”

I honestly thought this was the best possible response to bad things happening, and that I was a conduit to teach other people how to live a happy life even in the midst of terrible material tragedy.

While this is a fantastic attempt at noble thinking, in my case, it was basically just covert narcissism and an escape mechanism to not fully acknowledge my painful emotions. It’s narcissistic because I assumed I was the “chosen one” that needs to teach everybody else a thing or two, which in turn assumes I am not the one who needs to be taught. Yikes.

In this way, the person wallowing in a heap on the couch after losing their prized possessions is actually being more humble and real about the situation than the “strong and graceful” Performer plowing through the wreckage with a plastered grin.

But, on the other hand, wallowing on the couch totally sucks. Surely that isn’t the answer to what we should do in the face of tragedy.

Well, it is and it isn’t.

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Wallowing can be helpful for a short time, but it can soon become paralyzing.                 Photo by Naomi August on Unsplash

There is something the Wallower is doing better than the person who is plastering on a smile: they are allowing themselves to feel the negative emotions in their body, get in touch with the loss, and truly honor what these possessions meant to them. Feeling these emotions and honoring the loss are key steps toward healing.

But there is something the Performer is doing better than the Wallower: they are able to muster up enough higher perspective to get themselves off the couch (or ground, if the couch was also lost), and realize they can start anew and have hope for even more happiness than before. Finding motivation and hope even in darkness is also a key step toward healing.

So then, what is the best reaction to material tragedy?

Enter my epiphany.

My Epiphany: Finding the Middle Ground

My epiphany came when I began to marry the Wallower and the Performer to find a place in the middle where the main reaction to the tragedy isn’t to escape our feelings by “teaching” everyone else and isn’t to whine and complain without perspective.

The middle ground I’ve found a place where the main reaction is to simply learn—about ourselves and also other people.

There is so much about ourselves that is brought to the surface when bad things happen. That’s just how it goes. Not many of us are actively searching out our flaws, and even if we are, there is a certain level of blindness and self-ignorance we have when times are good.

When times are bad, however, all sorts of things come out of the woodwork. Both in us and the people around us.

If we can cultivate the skill to be present with the uncomfortable emotions caused by our material tragedies as well as watch our own reactions to these emotions, there is an infinite amount of lessons to learn about our go-to defense mechanisms and behaviors in times of stress (i.e. who we really are).

Once we view these material tragedies as an opportunity to learn more about the true nature of ourselves and others, we open to a higher perspective that helps us carry on through the tough times (a skill the Performer has) while at the same time being present with our uncomfortable emotions (a skill the Wallower has).

All the while we gain insights about ourselves that we may have never come to realize without this material tragedy occurring.

For example, here are some life-changing insights we learned through our truck burning down:

Realization 1

Joe realized a part of him subconsciously thought he didn’t even deserve a nice truck and was worried that other people already knew he didn’t deserve it and those people would feel happy to hear about him losing it. After talking it through, he realized this was actually just him projecting his own judgement of people with nicer things onto other people who he feared would judge him in the same way. I also realized I have these same tendencies to feel justified when people who have more than me go through loss. It was a great discussion that lead to some awesome healing in both of us.

Realization 2

Another thing I realized was that whenever Joe tried to vent his frustration about making a stupid mistake, I would cut him off and tell him to stop thinking that way. It was incredibly hard for me to give him space to process things on his own, which he needed to do, and it was a great opportunity to practice giving other people the space they need to process, even if it is hard to hear.

Realization 3

We both realized we have a badass neighbor in Travis, who didn’t hesitate to charge past our flaming driveway and ring our doorbell until we woke up. All in his undies, no less.

Realization 4

We also realized we have another neighbor who has a generous heart—he even asked if we need help replacing the truck. But we also realized he couldn’t stop beating himself up about not taking action right away when he saw the fire. I sensed the guilt and shame building in him as he was faced with the difference between who he wanted to be in the face of fear (someone courageous like Travis) and who he actually was (someone who wants to be courageous but also has three little kids that need him and gets caught in the conflicting desires). I hope he took time to recognize this in himself and make peace with it. He didn’t need to be Travis in this situation, being himself was more than enough.

So, what do we do with these realizations?

First off, it isn’t up to us to judge them. They are what they are. We are not judges, we are only learners. Let your judgements about yourself and others go as they only weigh you down. Instead, seek what you can learn from these realizations about what makes your heart feel lighter.

We are not judges, we are only learners. Click To Tweet

All we can do with the realizations the material tragedy unearths is to observe them and cultivate a willing heart to be taught how to change, make peace with, or celebrate them; whatever is needed for each specific realization.

Sometimes the lesson we learn from each realization isn’t apparent at first. But be patient with it, because they always come. We must give space to these realizations and sit with them (like the Wallower), with patience and perspective (like the Performer), thankful for the opportunity to become more aware of ourselves and the world around us even through such material tragedy.


My heart meets your heart in the place of your tragedy. May you learn things about yourself and others that you otherwise may have never known, and may these realizations help you make space for a new way of living that allows for even more happiness.



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