“When there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.”

When I used to blog in college (mostly personal stuff that probably had no business being on the internet, and found very few readers because no one cared), I’d frequently start off with a title from a song that maybe five people would recognize that was only vaguely related to my post. Here, I’ve started off with the first line from the first song on the album Set Yourself on Fire by Stars not because it is obscure and vaguely related to this post, but because it inspired me when I heard it in my car on my way to work this morning.
“When there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.”
I never realized how true this was until this year. I always used to think it was a really creepy line referencing someone actually setting themselves on fire, and images of protesters and extremists doing just that would always bounce into my head. But this morning, it struck me as more metaphorical: When you have no more external motivation and energy left, you must look deeper inside yourself for fuel to your fire.
I told my fiance this week that I was doing so much work that required so much energy with very little payoff. It’s that time of the year when, as a teacher (in Chicago, at least), you become so frustrated because you and the students are wishing upon wish for some sunlight or a nice day to go outside and run around. There needs to be some outlet for the energy that is being pent up inside. But there isn’t, so you keep teaching your heart out, and the students keep moving around and talking out and pounding on desks because they literally have no other outlet for the energy they have. And it is frustrating. Then, there’s grad school. I’m pouring energy into this paper and seeing so few results right now that it’s disheartening. And the wedding! It is so much planning for one day that seems so far off in the distance that any sort of rewarding feeling must be put off for so long.
I’m not saying I need instant gratification. I don’t. But having some sort of little payoff intermittently gives me the fuel to keep going, and I just haven’t felt that as of late. So I whine and complain and curl up in bed and decide I don’t want to try anymore because I want someone to pat me on the back and tell me I’m doing a good job, that they like my work, that I’m indespensible to a cause, that I’m doing something important.
I think, as activists, we’ve all felt this way at some point. We’ve fought so hard for something to come to fruition – for any progress at all – and when we do not win, we are defeated. We feel as if we cannot go on because, after a major defeat, what is the point of giving it all you’ve got only to be crushed and disappointed?
The truth is, though, that we must keep on. When things are so frustrating that we feel we cannot take on one more thing that may bust up in our faces, we must look into ourselves for what started us on this in the first place, and set ourselves on fire. Not literally, of course.
I had this amazing education professor in college who would always tell us to teach like our hair was on fire. I always thought that meant being goofy and energetic in the classroom. While I do believe that is part of it, I see now that he really meant for us to teach with an undying passion and, when that passion runs out, find it again for without it, we will feel lost. So I am vowing now to not only teach like my hair is on fire, but to live like my hair is on fire. To find that passion I started with and ignite it again. You can all keep me in check on this – when I start complaining again, remind me of this post.
And I encourage you to do the same. If you have any stories about “setting yourself on fire” (NOT LITERALLY! Please DO NOT literally light any flames because of this post!!) please share them below.
We are a strong, passionate community, and we are all doing important things.

One thought on ““When there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.”

  1. levi stone on

    gratification is a funny thing, all gratification seems instant at the time we receive it because at that point everything is over, i don’t think we can look back and say it wasn’t worth it, otherwise we wouldn’t say we were gratified, and we just wouldn’t have done it. I hope this finds you well, if it doesn’t I hope it helps. I appreciate the stars quote.

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