By Dana Gornall
I have been a fan of “The Office” for a couple of years now.
Yes, I realize I am late to the game—thank Netflix. One character I identify with is Pam. She’s quiet yet dependable, has an unexpected sense of humor, is hardworking, and has a difficult time speaking up for herself quite a bit of the time.
One of my favorite episodes is when the entire group goes to the beach for the day (well, except for poor Toby who is forced to stay at the office) and they participate in team building activities and contests to see who would emerge as a leader. The entire day Pam is overlooked, told to take notes and ignored by her boss, Michael. Toward the end of the evening Michael has a firewalk set up for his employees to face their fears and demonstrate their strength and courage. Everyone stands back glancing at the fire, looking around. Pam steps up wanting to try, but Michael shoos her away. Finally, later on in the evening when everyone has walked away from the fire, Pam stares at it for a moment and then takes the plunge and walks briskly across it. She then runs over to the group and confronts the team about them not going to her art show. She tells Michael she did the firewalk when he wasn’t able to and she confesses to Jim that she really likes him.
I am pretty sure every fan of “The Office” was cheering her on at that point.
I’ve heard about firewalks, have seen them on television and they have always intrigued me. Part of me felt there is a science to it, and the other part of me felt it’s similar to an illusion—the fire really isn’t that hot, the coals have cooled a little, there is a lot of material covering the coals so bare feet do not actually come in complete contact with the hotter pieces.
When I saw a promo for the upcoming firewalk near me, I wanted to try it.
I told a few people and in the weeks leading up to the event many of them had expressed their concerns and confusion as to why I would try such a thing. I kept telling them, and myself, that people wouldn’t do this if they got burned. I really had no worries at all.
That night the weather had turned suddenly cold. I dressed in layers and we drove to the firewalk site. As we walked down the hill, the mounds of large logs lined up and bunched in vertical piles were the backdrop against the small outdoor pavilion. I felt a small swoosh in my belly, knowing this was actually going to happen, but I still didn’t feel any fear, which was odd for my personality. I am filled with phobias—heights, small spaces, public speaking, large crowds.
Not feeling fear about walking on fire was odd.
We approached a table where we were given a release waiver to sign: basically saying that we would not sue if we got hurt, or died. We took our seats, shivering in the cool September air. A man stood up and said a few things, introducing the guest speaker who was another man who seemed to have a lot of energy and bounced back and forth over the makeshift stage. He talked about mantras and facing fears and overcoming things. My knee shook up and down trying to make myself warmer, and also because at the point I was feeling anxious and just wanted to get this event moving.
Finally, they lit the fire. The presenter explained that this was cedar wood; this type of lumber didn’t retain heat as much as other wood, and it burned with a softer texture.
As the talks and demonstrations continued—activities such as breaking boards with the side of the hand and walking on glass—I began to feel disenchanted. Images of old-time snake charmers and pop-up apothecary carriages claiming to cure every ailment came to mind. Sure, I am not closed-minded about things we can’t explain, but I am also a critical thinker, which is a trait I am proud of. As the night wore on and the small crowd cheered and yelled mantras, I watched the wood burn and crumble.
Finally, they began raking the wood back and forth. The time was nearing when we would walk. We were instructed to take our shoes and socks off if we had made the choice to try it. I pulled mine off, shivering in the cold and looking forward to getting a little closer to the fire. I looked at my friend sitting next to me and asked if she had been burned when she tried this before. “A very small blister.” I nodded, suddenly feeling nervous about going through with it. My boyfriend sat on my other side. He raised his eyebrows and smiled. We had been told not to ask each other if we would go through with it or not, so that no one would be influenced either way. In the end it had to be our own choice, and no matter which one we chose it would be right for us.
I reassured myself that this was science. The surface of the foot walking quickly across hot coals that had been slightly covered wouldn’t stand long enough to be burned.
Once we were faced with the heat of the fire, however, my stomach churned. This fire was hot. My face felt sunburned as we stood in a circle around the glowing pile. The presenter was talking, but I really didn’t hear what he was saying. A man stood off to the side hitting a drum. How corny, I thought. I just wanted to do it and be done. I wanted to say I did it. The line formed quickly and people went one right after the other. I didn’t hear anyone yell or cry so I figured it would be fine. My friend went, then a few more people. I shivered. My boyfriend went, then a girl and then there I was faced with the burning pile.
I didn’t think. I didn’t say a mantra. I didn’t question. I just walked.
One step. Two steps. I lifted and planted one foot after the other. I heard a guy yell behind me, “What is your mantra?” I just kept going in silence. That’s when I felt the sting. It hurt—a lot. A panic seized in my belly as I realized I was halfway through the pile. There would be no turning around and no jumping to the side (the pile was rather wide and there were people standing all around it) so I kept going, but quicker now. With each step I felt the stinging grow stronger, ripping into my skin. And then I was off, feet on the cool wet grass.
“You did it,” my boyfriend said and kissed me. “I burned my feet!” I yelled over the drumming and chanting. “What? Really?” I nodded, feeling the skin on my feet begin to bubble. I felt foolish and defeated.
Later that evening, I applied burn gel to my feet and bandaged them. I’m not sure why I was burned; neither my friend nor my boyfriend had any effects or even felt any heat. Some might say it was the trepidation I felt before, others would say it was because I didn’t shout a mantra. I think maybe my feet just happened to hit a hot spot and curved around it rather than step flat around it.
Surprisingly, I don’t regret it.
As someone who has always been the one to hold back, to not take some chances for safety, for someone who gets a quaking stomach when changing a lightbulb on step ladder, I showed some strength and courage by walking on that fire. Sometimes it takes a little growing. Sometimes it takes getting knocked down over and over and that act of getting back up over and over that builds a thicker backbone. Sometimes it takes too many times we are “shooed away” or overlooked before we fight back and stand up. My feet are healing.
Sometimes we get burned; that’s life. Sure, I didn’t have to walk on fire. Maybe the whole thing was a little over-the-top for me. However, when I go back to that moment right before I walked on the fire, I had this second of clarity and focus.
It’s that feeling that I know I need to harness every time I am faced with challenging things—the things I am afraid to do.
Photos: Author provided
Editor: Alicia Wozniak