The World Fire

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Dappled light danced across Vivian’s face, a hypnotic electric blue. She’d traveled long and far to get here, to the ends of the Earth and back. So much pain. So much loss. Time had passed her by as she wandered the darker passages of the world, until everyone and everything she’d ever known was dead.

“The World Fire accepts your sacrifice,” said the priestess, sitting cross-legged opposite the brightest flames Vivian had ever seen, an azure blaze that sizzled and popped with raw, untamable energy. “Come and accept your gift.”

Vivian shambled forward, a painful lump bulging in her throat as she swallowed. She hadn’t eaten in three days and she was weak. When at last, after God knew how many centuries of wandering, she’d finally arrived at the underground temple’s gates, she’d expected the mysteries she sought to be laid before her feet. Instead, the priestesses had denied her entry, requiring her first to fast.

“Please,” she’d said, weary and starving. But they’d been adamant, and Vivian had been put up in a tiny monastic cell outside the temple proper with no source of light save for the dim flicker of an oil lamp, the flame blue, like all the fire down there.

“Do you know why we made you fast?” the priestess asked, face shrouded by a dark cloth.

Vivian shook her head. She was muzzy and and couldn’t think straight. She’d tried to meet the priestess’s eyes, but the fire kept drawing her attention, wild energies she’d lusted for her entire life.

“The World Fire demands sacrifice,” the woman said in a low voice. “Even after all you gave up in search of it, you were required to give up more, because only with your stomach and your heart empty can you partake of its secrets.”

Vivian licked her lips. There were many theories pertaining to what the fire was and what it could do, ranging from the plausible to the fantastical and everything in-between. She hadn’t known what to expect when she set out, then a young woman disillusioned with life, but she’d believed with almost religious zeal that the fire could satisfy her deepest curiosities, that in its furtive flickers she would glimpse nothing less than the mysteries of the cosmos.

“Come forward,” the priestess said again, and Vivian placed one stumbling foot after the next, the object of her endless quest burning before her like an indigo star.

There were those who said fire was an expression of the divine. There was Moses and the burning bush, the great “I AM;” there was Agni, the Hindu fire God, riding on the back of his goat with flaming hair flying in the wind; there was Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, wielding his mighty blacksmith’s hammer as he toiled in a supernatural inferno. Now, standing in the midst of this underground temple, Vivian believed all those stories were true.

The flames sang to her as they danced, casting harsh, abstract shadows along the walls, primal rhythmic chants promising salvation. Come, the fire crooned. Find the answers you seek.

A blinding flash erupted as Vivian stepped into the flames. They tore into her skin, which sizzled and crackled; they clawed at her eyes, which boiled and popped. Smoke choked her airways so she could no longer breathe. But none of that mattered, because here, on the precipice of death, the secrets of the universe were revealed to her at last.

“I see,” Vivian rasped through blackened lips.

The fire required sacrifice, the priestess had said, and how right she’d been. The fire had opened her eyes, giving her the knowledge she desired, but in return it had demanded her life. That was how the World Fire worked, how it claimed the fuel it needed to burn, the fuel it needed to power every revolution of the Earth around the sun.

Vivian’s body crumpled in immolation, and she offered her spirit to the fire and said no more.

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Age and the Loss of Innocence

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There are those exceptional moments in life when you experience crystal clarity in thought and purpose, when all is as it should be, when all is right and good with the world. But those moments are rare, are few and far between, and they almost always occur when you’re young. As a child, you didn’t have time to formulate your own beliefs; instead, your world view hinged on the beliefs of others. The innocence of youth is a wonderful carefree time in which the mind and the heart are free from the burdens of autonomous thinking and responsibility.

Then a tragic thing happens. You grow up. You question. You doubt. The world view you subscribed to when you were young no longer seems to apply. You wake up to discover you’ve been abandoned in a hostile world that makes no sense, and you’re forced to fend for yourself, to scrap together bits and pieces of the truth as you find them, to piece together some fragmentary understanding of who you are and why you’re here. You toil in the dark without relief, with only the cold and empty void of unconsciousness for an interlude. You’re faced with the prospect of death somewhere on the horizon, yet have no knowledge of when you’ll meet it face-to-face or what will happen when that day finally comes.

This of course is a necessary thing. Without the impetus to search for the truth, you would lay on your back day and night, unmotivated, listless and without purpose. It is this very emptiness, this very despair that compels you to move forward. You venture on. You hope and you pray that the light you seek at the end of the world exists, that the faith you placed in this unnamed truth was not in vain.

And sooner or later, one way or the other, you’ll find out.

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Your Core Beliefs Have Disintegrated. What Do You Do?

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You’d always stood firm in your beliefs. You never had reason to question them, never thought you could be persuaded to the contrary. You were a rock, solid and firm amidst the torrential currents of human affairs. Then the unthinkable happened.

Perhaps it started with a question, humble and unassuming at first, but like a trojan horse it slowly and methodically wrapped around the contours of your mind like choking vines. Perhaps someone raised an objection you hadn’t hitherto considered. Perhaps a traumatic experience shook you to your core, forever altering your perceptions. Gradually or abruptly, you found yourself stranded in a dark and lonely place.

You never thought you would end up there. You’re desperately hopelessly lost, alienated from all you knew and held to be true. You have no map, no compass. There are no street signs. There are no lamps to light your way. All there is is darkness.

What do you do?

First, cling to what you know.

Your soul is a treasure trove of knowledge. You possess a lifetime of experience and education. You know things, perhaps imperfectly, perhaps even erroneously, yet it’s from these basic units of thought that you must begin your journey.

Nobody can make sense of the world without first having acquired a baseline level of experience, some fundamental understanding of the universe and how it works. In cases where your knowledge is true, or at least imperfectly true, you find a compass, some internal sense that pulls you in the proper direction. In cases where your knowledge proves mostly or completely false, you nevertheless find, after due deliberation, a compass that operates in reverse, pointing out directions you should avoid so you can find the proper path.

Cling to what you know for dear life. It will be your anchor, your solitary light in a dark and frightening world.

Second, learn what you don’t know.

While it’s imperative that you start with what you know, doing so is futile without the intention to press forward. The one who is not relatively secure in his beliefs has a uniquely grave obligation to search for what’s true.

Read as much as you can. Study history. Study science. Study art. Study philosophy and religion. Study as much as you can in as many disciplines as possible, for even those endeavors that seem wholly unrelated to the object you seek will prove relevant in some way. Everything is connected to everything else, because humanity and its pursuits are an integral whole.

Talk to people. Discover what they believe. Share what you believe. Discuss. Ask questions. Debate. Maintain an open mind, yet be ready to seize upon wisdom when wisdom is recognized. Many perspectives ensure many handholds as you struggle to find your way, slowly piecing together what you should hold to be true.

The more you learn, the broader your knowledge-base becomes, and the more accurately you can test existing beliefs. Education is a star in the sky whose light grows brighter and fuller with every acquired unit of knowledge, revealing more and more of the terrain before you so you can continue on your quest.

Finally, and most importantly, search for The Truth.

There are many “truths”: customs, fads and beliefs that various societies and individuals at various times have endowed with the dubious charism of “common sense.” The Truth, however, is an objective reality, waiting to be discovered. We were created to search for, to know and to ultimately love The Truth. It is the prize we seek from the genesis of our existence; it is our Purpose and our End.

Some of us in this life will only know The Truth imperfectly. Others of us not at all. But I firmly believe that if you honestly and diligently pursue it, you will be rewarded for your heroic efforts, either in this life or in the life to come.  Chase it relentlessly. Don’t be discouraged, and above all don’t lose hope.

The ambiguities, uncertainties and limitations of your finite life should be of no concern to you. The Truth is your beloved, your prize, the pinnacle and the fulfillment of your existence. Go after it with all your might, and one day, you will not only find the light you thought you’d lost, but an even greater one, a searing fire that will consume your heart so that you will never want again.

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Can I Hear the Voices of the Dead?

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Humans have long been fascinated by the idea that they could somehow speak with the dead. Most of us feel connected to them in one way or another, and we often ache for the chance to reunite. There are grieved lovers who want another chance to say goodbye; students who seek advice from deceased mentors; family members who yearn to make amends for past wrongs. Whatever our reasons, this craving for a continued relationship with our predecessors seems to be built into our DNA.

More than once, I’m sure you’ve thought, “if only I could hear the voices of the dead.” Well, what if I told you that you could?

Books are the answer.

When we read, our ancestors speak to us once more. Though death may have taken them, their voices remain with us in all that they’ve written, indelibly etched into the edifice of time. Books are the means by which we learn from our genealogical, intellectual and spiritual progenitors, as well as how we ourselves communicate with future generations, ensuring that whatever we learn during our ephemeral Earthly existence will never be lost.

They’re the voices of wise parents and teachers, telling us that our struggles were once theirs. They give us advice, and they teach us how to deal with our problems so that we won’t have to suffer the same mistakes.

They’re the voices of friends and lovers, who bestow comfort and hope in times of distress. They remind us through their stories — some joyful and others tragic — of how to love and how to feel. They teach us how to weather the storm of life, and in the midst of a world that often seems harsh, cold and uncaring, they help us understand that life is always worth living, and that everything happens for a reason.

They’re the voices of scientists, poets and philosophers, perpetuating beauty and knowledge from age to age so that both might never be lost. They whisper to us in the dark corners of our bedrooms and offices after hours, so that we too might be privy to whatever secrets they discovered before their Earthly journeys were complete.

In death, you too can speak to the living.

Just as your ancestors left behind their own voices, so too can you leave yours, so that when your appointed time comes, future generations will still be able to learn from the wisdom you attained in life.

Don’t have time to write a book? Don’t worry about it. Keep a journal. Freewrite for five minutes about your thoughts and feelings. Write letters to friends and family. Your words need not be formally compiled, edited and published by a major press. Some of our most treasured literary artifacts were those that were penned or spoken informally, passed down from teachers to students, parents to children or between friends and lovers.

Our ancestors will always be with us.

In books, we discover that the voices of those who’ve died persist, teaching, exorting, comforting, encouraging, continuing to dwell among each and every one of us. They give us hope for the future, and when we have hope for the future, we feel compelled to offer up our own wisdom, which we pray will be useful to those who come after us.

The next time you want to reconnect with someone from the past, don’t wait until your own demise to be with them. Just pick up a book and read.

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