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Friday, April 18, 2014

When Your Life Is On Fire, What Would You Save?

Many of us have emergency plans for a calamities like an earthquake or a fire, but author Erik Kolbell set out to explore how prepared we are for a dark night of the soul.

Erik Kolbell's new book "When Your Life Is On Fire" asks what's most important in life to 13 different people. (Courtesy of JRB Communications)

Erik Kolbell’s new book “When Your Life Is On Fire” asks what’s most important in life to 13 different people. (Courtesy of JRB Communications)

Kolbell started with a variation of the question, “what would you save if your house were on fire?”

In Kolbell’s experiment, your house is burning, but all your loved ones, including pets, are already safe. You can save only one thing from your house, but the catch is that your house contains not only every single thing you own, it also contains everything you are, including your beliefs and principles, your likes and your dislikes, your temperament and passions.

Kolbell put the question to 13 people, from the famous, like Alan Alda and Jane Pauley, to names not in the media, like a New York City firefighter who responded to the 9/11 attack at the World Trade Center, and a veteran who was severely injured in Iraq.

Kolbell explains to Here & Now’s Robin Young what lessons there are from his experiment for all of us, especially during Easter and Passover. An excerpt of his book, “When Your Life Is on Fire: Thirteen Extraordinary People Answer One Simple Question” appears below.

Book Excerpt: ‘When Your Life Is On Fire’

By Erik Kolbell

Burning Passions: An Introduction

Courtesy of JRB Communications, LLC

Though we might love God we cannot speak of Him (or Her or, whatever).  What I mean by this is that we can speak only in approximations about who or what God is because the infinite cannot be fully captured in words any more than the stars of the night can be held in the palm of your hand.

To say that God is love (or judgment, or wisdom or power…) is to say that we experience what we call love (or judgment, or wisdom or power…) from what we call God (or Allah, or Vishnu, or Elohim, or Arhant, or, oh, you get the idea.)  What this means is that we do not so much speak of God as we do of who God is in our lives.   Thus, the metaphysician’s God is first cause just as the priest’s God is the source of all creation.  The God of Freud is the neurotic’s illusion of a divine father, just as the God of the dutiful six year old Sunday schooler is, well, a divine father.   The iconoclastic theologian Paul Tillich spoke of God as “the object of [his] ultimate concern,” which was a variation on Martin Luther’s observation that “Whatever then thy heart clings to…and relies upon…that is properly thy God.” And in both instances the emphasis is not on God’s nature but on what it elicits in us.  Others over the years have spoken of God in a similar vein as the object of our adoration and worship, or that which we value above all else.

We do not all believe in God, let alone the same God.  But we do all have the capacity to identify that which our heart clings to, that which we adore and value above all else; and while for some of us this may not be synonymous with a description of God per se it is indicative of how that which we consider “sacred” (if even in a secular sense) comes into our lives.

This book is comprised of interviews with a wide range of people from various walks of life with whom I explored what it is that they hold in greatest esteem and why.  By asking them this I am asking them to define what is for them, if not their God, or even their god, that which is the object of their ultimate concern.  With this in mind I chose a group of interviewees whose creativity, thoughtfulness, beliefs, courage or simply joie de vivre made for compelling narrative.

My method of inquiry was a variation on an old query:  “Imagine that your house is on fire,” the query goes, “but in this instance your house represents not only all of your material possessions, it is your entire life.  It is everything you own but it is also everything you believe in. Every memory you hold, your values, your money, your credentials, your legacy, your dreams are all ablaze in that house.  All of your family, friends and pets are safe, but everything else is imperiled.  If you know only that you can rescue one thing from that fire, what would it be?”  The idea was not to have the subjects muse detachedly on the subject matter; rather, it was to have them tell their story so that the story bears personal witness to that which they hold dear or sacred.

In addition, I have concluded each chapter with a brief meditation of my own on how the holy is uniquely represented in the subject’s life, yet at the same time how any one of us might find a point of identification with the subject’s story.

I hope this book will speak to the reader on three important levels.  First, I hope her eyes will be opened to the broad array of ways in which we human beings find ultimate value.  Second, I hope it stirs her to think about the question as it pertains to her own life.  Finally, I can’t help but think that the reader will be deeply moved by some of the extraordinary stories these people have to tell.  Put another way, I believe you will find Burning Passions to be informative, evocative, and inspirational.

Excerpted from the book WHEN YOUR LIFE IS ON FIRE by Erik Kolbell. Copyright © 2014 by Erik Kolbell. Reprinted with permission of Westminster John Knox Press.


  • Rev. Erik Kolbell, pyschotherapist and former minister of social justice at Riverside Church in New York. His new book is “When Your Life Is On Fire.”



It's HERE AND NOW. Happy Passover, Happy Good Friday, and Easter is coming up. Jews gathered for Seders this past Monday and Tuesday to remember the difficult flight from slavery in Egypt to freedom. Christian pilgrims are in the Holy Land today for Good Friday, the day of Christ's crucifixion at Calvary with the promised resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Both sets of stories and traditions are about values essential for us as human beings, and so is Erik Kolbell's new book. Kolbell is a psychotherapist and former minister of social justice at Riverside Church in New York City. His new book is "When Your Life Is On Fire, What Would You Save?" And he joins us from the studios of NPR in New York. Erik, welcome.

ERIK KOLBELL: Good to be here, Robin.

YOUNG: Really nice to have you here. And your title, a play on a very old question: What would you save if your house is on fire? You ask readers to think about that. But I love how French filmmaker Jean Cocteau answered the question in the beginning of your book. He was asked if your home was on fire, and you could only save one thing, what would it be? What was his answer?

KOLBELL: His answer was I'd save the fire.

YOUNG: That is very deep. So we want to get listeners thinking, probably many already have, about what they would save. You know, people have thought about a house fire. Of course minus people and pets, they are out safely in this theoretical question. People have thought about that. But what would it be for you, Erik? Start there.

KOLBELL: Well, materially I suspect what I would want to save would be my writings. And one of the things we did with this book, though, is we expanded, we expanded the idea of the house fire to say that not only does the house contain everything you own, but think of everything you are, you know, your principles, your beliefs, your memories, anything you want to include that is of value to you. Imagine that in the house, and then on that basis, what would be the most important thing for you to save?

YOUNG: Well because the first question gets trickier without the second. For instance, if someone says I've got to save that car that I lovingly restored, you might say to them, well, how do you feel about money? Did you save any money, because what are you going to restore it with?

KOLBELL: Right, that's part of the conundrum. As people contemplated the question, they very often told me it wasn't a matter of thinking about what they would save but all the things they were leaving behind. So it really was a sticky wicket for them.

YOUNG: Is was what you're not just saving but what you're forsaking.


YOUNG: Yeah, what are some of the things that people told you? You spoke to a fireman, for instance.

KOLBELL: I spoke to a firefighter who was actually the first female firefighter in the New York Fire Department. Her name is Brenda Berkman, and she is a recent convert to Christianity. And what she said, apropos of this week, is she would save the beatitudes of Jesus, the blessings from the Sermon on the Mount. She said without those, I would be a total moral wreck.

YOUNG: Well, but what does that - that's a thing, but then how does she go on to say what value that is that she's saving or what values she would be savings?

KOLBELL: Well, the reason it's so valuable to her is that she regards it as the blueprint of her life. One of the things she pointed out in the conversations in "When Your Life Is On Fire," she said one of the most important beatitudes to her is blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. And she said why I value that so much, and again in her own words, is I'm not very much at peace with myself.

So what she was really saying to me was that these are the ways that I have to try and mature as a human being, and they are in essence my blueprint for a stronger and more peaceful life.

YOUNG: Give us some other examples of not maybe what people said but what you'd want people to think about if they're sitting here saying God, I spent a lot on that bicycle, I'd really like that bicycle, that's, you know, who I am. What are - when you want to broaden it out to not just your house on fire but your life on fire, what are some of the things you're asking people to think about?

KOLBELL: I'm asking them to think about their beliefs, their dispositions, their memories that are most important to them. There was a returning soldier from Afghanistan who suffered traumatic brain injury, and when I asked him, his name is Don Lang(ph), when I asked him when your life is on fire, what would you save, Don said, in essence, it's too late. I lost everything. The fire has already happened.

And what he meant by that was he really lost everything about his identity because of his brain injury in Afghanistan. And what he said then was the most valuable thing to him was rebuilding who he is. So he focused on his personality.

There was a woman by the name of Tao Porchon Lynch(ph), who is 98 years old and is a yoga instructor, grew up in India. Her earliest memory, she was brought up by her uncle and aunt, her earliest memory was walking for independence with Gandhi. And she talked about her optimism, without which she couldn't be a teacher, she couldn't be a yogi, and she said she couldn't be a human being.

YOUNG: Boy if everything was on fire, wanting to save your optimism is a challenge.

KOLBELL: Yeah, to say the least. I'm not sure I would have chosen that, but she did.

YOUNG: Well, put this in the context of the season for us. One of the most powerful responses you got was from a rabbi. He related to the Passover story, again the Jews fleeing the pharaoh and slavery. And he related that to today.

KOLBELL: Yeah, Arthur Wasgow(ph) is this brilliant rabbi in Philadelphia. Arthur talked to me about his conversion experience. And what he said was he was living in D.C. back in - when Martin Luther King was assassinated, which also happened to be the beginning of Passover in 1968.

The federal government put a lockdown on Washington for a curfew, dawn to dusk, or dusk to dawn, and Arthur and a group of other activists organized to bring food and medical supplies and other provisions into the African-American communities that were shut down because of the lockdown.

He talked about walking down the street with these boxes of supplies, with military and with armed militia and tanks pointed at him. And he suddenly realized, he said this is pharaoh's army. The Seder, he said, is in the streets. And that's when he decided to become a rabbi.

YOUNG: And of course it's Easter, as well, rebirth for believers. But it's a very powerful time, and can be, for the secular, as well. I have a friend who sees this time of year as a second chance, you know, yeah.


YOUNG: But how does that - go ahead.

KOLBELL: No you please, go ahead.

YOUNG: I was going to say how does that relate to your question?

KOLBELL: Well, I think what it does is this: It's a season of rebirth in that both the Passover story and in the Easter story, you have the triumph of hope and possibility over the forces of oppression and despair. And that is what I think your friend is touching upon. The way it relates to values is this: When we embrace the idea of hope, and a season spurs that embrace in us, it can change the way we see life and thereby change what we really value most or at least clarify what we really value most.

And the important thing is not just the clarification of what we value. The important thing is to take the lessons of this season and figure out how to hold on to those values going forth into the rest of the year.

YOUNG: Yeah, kind of what you don't like about yourself, let it burn.

KOLBELL: Right, right, right, right, incinerate it.

YOUNG: Erik Kolbell, his - he's a psychotherapist, former minister of social justice at Riverside Church in New York. His new book is "When Your Life Is On Fire, What Would You Save?" Erik, thanks so much.

KOLBELL: Thanks so much, Robin.

YOUNG: And to our listeners, we'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Go to When your house is on fire, what one thing, again not people, pets, what one thing would you save and why. And then if your life were on fire, what one thing about yourself do you want to save, and what do you want to just leave behind. Let us know, You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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