The piercing tones of a fire engine interrupted me at home one afternoon. Usually, the sounds are further away, but this one sounded close. Much too close. Since there’s only one entrance into the neighborhood, I knew that they were coming to assist someone close by. As I looked out the window, I saw huge billows of dark, thick smoke ascending into the sky. And that’s when I realized it—my neighbor’s house was on fire.
In that moment, it’s a strange mental process to figure out what one should do. I don’t know any of the neighbors, but I felt compelled to drop what I was doing and see what was happening. I followed the smoke, the fire engines, and the other people walking toward the scene, until I reached the house. A large gathering of onlookers stood by. We didn’t say much—we just watched.
I stood there for at least 30 minutes, not quite sure why I was standing there, but finding myself unable to walk away. The flames, which at one point seemed under control, all of a sudden burst forth with new vigor. By the time that fire engines from surrounding cities appeared to help, the blaze was burning furiously. When it was finally under control, the house was all but destroyed.
Some people stayed standing there, while others, including myself, finally began to drift away. I felt sad and sobered for the rest of the day, and I began to reflect on why I had walked across the neighborhood to watch my neighbor’s house burn down. It wasn’t morbid curiosity. I wasn’t like the teenage boys who just wanted to witness something crazy happening. And after some reflection, I finally realized why I had done that.
There’s an unsettling truth in life that most (if not all) of us will learn at some point. And that truth is this: the rest of the world doesn’t fall apart when our personal worlds fall apart. I remember the first (but certainly not the last) time I experienced this at the age of 21. The boy who said he wanted to marry me, and with whom I’d planned to spend my life, one day just changed his mind and broke things off with no warning.
I remember going to Target the next day to buy some things, still dazed and in shock. As I roamed the aisles, wanting nothing more than to crawl into the fetal position on aisle 10, I heard people around me laughing and joking. I saw people who were happy. And I was shocked to see that the world around me kept acting as though nothing was wrong, when for me, everything was wrong. I was shocked to see that the world was still turning when my world had been shaken to the core.
And that’s why I left my house that day to stand there silently while my neighbor’s house burned down—because when we don’t stop what we’re doing to acknowledge another person’s loss and tragedy, we diminish both their humanity and our own. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know the family. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t do anything to help. What mattered was that someone’s life was crumbling in that moment as their home burned down, and I had to stop what I was doing to acknowledge that reality. I had to stop my own world for a moment, as though to say that I see what is happening to you, I grieve for what is happening to you, and I am sorry. And so, for just a moment, my world will stop with you.