Continuing today in the series, “STUFF I’VE PICKED UP ALONG THE WAY.” This one stems from a (series of?) conversations with my dad when I was just a lad… & it had everything to do with my response to my younger brothers’ antagonism.
STUFF #7 – “Don’t put wood on the fire…”
For all of us wanna-be pyros, this seems like it would be BAD advice; of course fires need more wood. That’s how they burn! But this truth is precisely why the instruction to NOT put wood on the fire stuck with me…
I am the oldest of 4 boys – all of us born (approx.) 4 years apart. There were some lonely days between the ages of 0 to about 6. First, I was waiting for siblings; second I was waiting for them to get bigger so we could actually PLAY together. I thought that once Johnny & Joel (& later Ben) were growed up, then:
- life would be better & more fun
- we would live out all of our days in rapturous joy;
Not quite how that worked out.
While I loved (& still love) my brothers, our early years were often characterized by all out brawls: verbal & physical… 2 (& later 3) against 1. Them against me. And while the physical onslaught was (mostly) easy to endure, it was the psychological warfare which all of my brothers engaged in that really got me. It’s like they were born with the innate knowledge of “How to antagonize your brother…” I didn’t get that they would provoke me to get attention out of me, & bad/negative attention was better than no attention.
My brother Johnny could push my buttons. He knew just what to say, just what to do, to get a rise out of me. When my parents weren’t looking, he’d pinch, punch, shove, or elbow; he’d lean in & call me silly names, challenge me to contests of physical (& emotional) strength, & generally dominate me & my head space. He lived there rent-free :)
I’d respond in anger. Frustration. My own antagonism. I’d get loud, go after his buttons (I could play that game too) & generally take it up a notch (or 10) until the house was overflowing with our shouted conflicts, disagreements, & antagonisms.
One day, I remember my dad pulling me aside & taking me into his study (which, to me, signaled that things were about to get REAL.) He pulled out his bible & read these verses to me:
Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers & as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife. Proverbs 26:20,21 – NIV
I could see it – my dad was explaining to me that the problem, the REAL problem, was that my brothers kept putting fuel on the fires, which resulted in me HAVING to respond to them to make sure justice was served, every challenge was met, & every threat, rebuffed. Felt a little proud of myself at connecting those dots. Except…
That wasn’t the point. This wasn’t about learning to shut down conflicts by controlling the behaviors of OTHERS. This was about learning to shut down conflicts by controlling the behaviors (& responses) of LOUIE. Me. The lesson wasn’t in how to fix others… it was in how to control & discipline the only person I really could: me.
Not what I wanted to hear. I think I argued with my dad a bit, about the injustice of what he was (God was?) asking me to do – “If I don’t respond, they’ll think they WIN. And that is not RIGHT!”
Nope – that is not the thing – the thing is, the only person Louie can control, can truly take full responsibility for shaping is… Louie. And in this scenario, the Bible, Solomon – the wisest of them all – inspired by the Lord God Almighty, was pointing to a different way.
IF you don’t put wood on a fire, it WILL go out.
My responses (justified & legitimate though they may seem to me) were putting wood (kindling, gasoline, & all other flammable materials) onto a fire that would never tire of burning out.
And sometimes the only way to put the fire out, was to STOP putting wood/fuel on it. And that is what I was tasked to do.
It wasn’t perfect, but I did it. I can distinctly remember a time where Johnny went into antagonist mode; he wanted, no, needed me to respond to him, so he gradually dug into his tool bag of “fire it up” skillz, & launched them at me. One at a time. Every. Single. One.
And this time, this once, I ignored his taunts. I ignored & didn’t respond to his teasing. I thought about starving a fire of fuel, & determined in my heart & in my head (& with my mouth) that I would not, under any circumstances, add any WOOD to this FIRE. And i didn’t.
And eventually, young Johnny (who had to be all of 4 years old or so,) ran out of steam. It was no fun to stir things up without a partner/opponent. But I was determined. No. Wood.
The feeling of satisfaction I experienced at that moment stays with me today. I DID it. Because I DIDN’T do it. And, just like my dad (& Solomon & the proverb in my Jesus book) said, the fire of antagonism went out. Walked away. Went to raid the pantry. No conflict.
This principle has remained at/near the forefront of my thoughts/interactions, even today, esp. when a situation arises where it appears interpersonal interactions are going to get HOT… & instead of responding to real/perceived injustice, antagonism, character assassination, etc… I have learned (& attempted to practice) self-control. I laid down (& continue to practice laying down) the need to be RIGHT, the need to have the LAST WORDS, the need to be JUSTIFIED in my own eyes/the eyes of others.
Years later, I was reading in the book of Nehemiah (the rebuilder of the wall around Jerusalem) – what stood out to me was his self-control & his refusal to respond in kind to the attempts made to divert him from God’s purpose & plan for his life… attempts made by 3 guys (& their minions) to distract, antagonize, & turn him FROM self-control/obedience to God, TOWARDS answering their challenges & embracing the need for self-justification.
I can do that.
I don’t HAVE TO respond to antagonism in kind.
I am not COMPELLED to put wood on the proverbial fire.
I don’t have to attempt to JUSTIFY myself in the eyes of others… esp. if I can be content & secure in the knowledge of my own (to the best of my abilities) right standing before God.
This one, “Don’t put wood on the fire,” is PURE GOLD. Grab on to this for yourself.