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We didn’t start the fire

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By Eric Redard, Volunteer Services Manager

“We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning, since the world’s been turning.
We didn’t start the fire. No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it.” – Billy Joel

This morning, as I drove into work, Billy Joel’s timeless tune, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” came on the radio. The song mentions 117 important people, conflicts, and other historical events, fads, and cultural touchstones between 1949, the year of Billy Joel’s birth, and 1989, the year the song was released. I don’t know about you, but every time I hear this song, I wonder when someone is going to update it with headlines that have occurred since the song’s release. We could dedicate a whole verse just to 2020 alone!

As I listened to the words, I began to get a little emotional. It became apparent that we are seeing many of the same headlined topics in today’s news. While the specifics have changed, the issues are still very much the same, creating tension, anxiety, and stress while fueling the fire that still burns within our society. Here are some observations I made.

We have been challenged by illness and health issues for decades. Polio and AIDS are mentioned in the song. In the second verse, the word “vaccine” instantly jumped out at me. The development of effective vaccines to prevent paralytic polio was one of the major medical breakthroughs of the 20th century. The first, an inactivated polio vaccine (IPV), was developed by Dr. Jonas Salk and first used in 1955. I can imagine the discovery of this new vaccine elicited both relief and stress within the United States, and the world, just as Pfizer and Moderna vaccines introduced their own challenges when announced and distributed.

Issues of racism, equity, and injustice present themselves throughout Joel’s song. “Alabama” is the site of the Montgomery bus boycott. Four days before the boycott began, Rosa Parks, an African American woman, was arrested and fined for refusing to yield her bus seat to a white man. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ordered Montgomery to integrate its bus system, and one of the leaders of the boycott was a young pastor named Martin Luther King Jr.

“Little Rock,” Arkansas is the site of an anti-integration standoff, as Governor Orval Faubus stopped the Little Rock Nine from attending Little Rock Central High School and President Eisenhower deployed the 101st Airborne Division to counteract them. “Ole Miss” refers to a riot that was fought in 1962 between Southern segregationist civilians and federal and state forces as a result of the forced enrollment of Black student James Meredith at the University of Mississippi.

Politicians and politics are mentioned a time or two. Perhaps you can listen to the song and hear for yourself the challenges that sound familiar.

Spanish philosopher George Santayana is credited with the saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Similarly, British statesman Winston Churchill wrote, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” For me, these two quotes warn against failure to remember the past, and not learning from past mistakes.

Children learn at an early age that fire, in any form, is hot and shouldn’t be touched. Some of you may have heeded your parent’s warning and stayed away from fire. Others may have learned the hard way by trying to pass their finger through the open flame of a candle and ended up with third degree burns. (Who could that have been?) In both cases, once you learned that you could get burned, you remembered fire is dangerous and not to play with an open flame. Lesson learned.

I know this is an oversimplified example of remembering and learning from the past, and the issues we are dealing with hold great importance. After all, these are people’s lives we talking about.

As the song goes, we didn’t start the fire, it’s always been burning, since the world’s been turning. We all have different responses to the cultural “fires” that surround us. Some people’s reaction is to fan the flames, giving the fire oxygen and making it burn hotter. It may seem like they are throwing gasoline on the fire instead of water. Others sit by the fire, watching it, letting it burn, having no interest in where it burns, as long as it doesn’t burn them. Some may even toast marshmallows over it.

Another response is to try to put the fire out. As Joel mentioned, the fires have been burning for a long time, so this is not an easy task. Yet… it’s not impossible. Through identifying and educating yourself about the root cause of the fire; recruiting and equipping others to assist in the fire-fighting; being patient, persistent, and self-aware throughout the whole process, the fires can be smothered. Perseverance, selflessness, teamwork, and a little faith have enabled people to overcome a myriad of challenges throughout history.

We may not have started the fire, but together we can extinguish it.

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