A few years ago, two of us ancient firefighters were standing in our station underneath fluorescent lights. It was about two in the morning, and we had just returned from a minor trash fire. We stood there, underneath the Milky Way, just being firefighters, talking about nothing in particular. 

Then, my friend said, “I just thought they were asleep.” 

I knew immediately what he was thinking. It had been almost five years since that one June night. Four children were killed in a car accident caused by a drunk driver. It was a horrific night. Chaotic at first, and then silent when we realized there was nothing we could do. 

My friend has carried that thought, that weight, for years (as had I), and as we talked that night under the fluorescent lights and the Milky Way, it floated up to the surface. 

First responders live with a tangle of tragedies like these. They challenge our construct of life and order. It’s easy to lose faith in anything. Nothing, in the face of so many of these kinds of events, makes sense. In my book Firefighter Zen: A Field Guide to Thriving in Tough Times, I call this the “Firefighter Universe.” The rules of that universe will be familiar to any Buddhist practitioner. Life is fragile and unpredictable. One minute you’re standing in a Starbucks, and the next you clutch your chest and fall to the ground in cardiac arrest. There is immense suffering in life, although most choose not to see it. First responders, by virtue of their vocation, must see it.

The writer Terry Tempest Williams was once told by a friend, “You are married to sorrow.” She replied, “I’m not married to sorrow; I just choose not to look away.” 

First responders also choose not to look away. We are familiar with suffering and death in all its guises. 

It is an illusion-stripping occupation. It erodes the idea that happiness can be attained through material goods or the achievement of status. First responders quickly discover that joy is found in service to others. Life becomes about running toward suffering rather than running away. 

And yet, first responders are also fallible human beings. There is a price paid for living in this universe. In 2019, in the United States, more firefighters died by suicide than in line-of-duty deaths. In another study from 2015, over half of 700 firefighters admitted to binge drinking in the previous month. First responders also have higher rates of PTSD than the general population has, and for centuries, the firefighter “code” has been to “suck it up,” not display emotion, and to “be a man.”

It only takes one tragedy, one bad emergency call, to cause physiological and psychological damage to our spirits, though many first responders accumulate decades of such experiences. Beyond the psychological “wounding,” there is a spiritual and existential injury that first responders must navigate. 

This was brought home to me once after another multi-fatality crash. A mother of one of the friends of the deceased asked, “Why did this happen?” Fire academies do not teach the answer to that question, which hangs over each death. Counselors are usually not equipped or comfortable answering it. It is out of their realm.  

Into this void steps the chaplain. 

The Chaplain

In the US, the chaplain plays three primary roles in the fire service. When there are fatalities, a family loses their home in a fire, a line-of-duty death occurs, or a first responder commits suicide, the chaplains are the ones who step in. They help manage the logistics of tragedy, the handling of chaos. This becomes crucial when shock and grief overwhelm everyone, whether among civilians or in the department.  

Next, working with department administration, chaplains often help organize the “Critical Incident Stress Debriefings.” These are confidential sessions that help first responders mentally and emotionally integrate their experience of a tragic call.

Finally, chaplains provide a deeper and more spiritual approach to counseling. While fire service chaplains most often come from religious backgrounds, by tradition (and law in the United States), they do not proselytize. That brings us to the role that Buddhist fire chaplains like Jacquetta Gomes can play. Gomes and I met online—as is common in these pandemic days—and connected over our shared passion for helping first responders. 

Buddhist Fire Chaplains

Gomes is a Buddhist teacher and a fire chaplain for East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service and The Fire Fighters Charity. She is acknowledged as the first female Buddhist fire chaplain in the world.

Gomes notes that a Buddhist chaplain can bring a Buddhist perspective and set of skills to chaplaincy. First is the ability to be present and mindful. Second, during what can be emotional and difficult conversations, is the ability to hold a non-judgmental space. Finally, a Buddhist chaplain can support and understand multiple spiritual paths. This is important when dealing with individuals from all faiths and none. The Buddhist understanding of the universality of suffering and the call to kindness makes this possible. 

In a 2016 interview with Tricycle, Gomes shared that the five remembrances—“I’m of the nature to age; I’m of the nature to get ill; I’m of the nature to die; everything will be separated from me that’s pleasing; I’m the owner of my karma”—can be especially helpful for members of the fire service who become so familiar with loss.

Buddhist chaplains like Gomes remind first responders that providing support for one another is not about answering the question, “Why do bad things happen?” Instead, support means listening, with empathy and presence, to a person in pain. It is aiding that individual in rediscovering hope, not as derived from some supernatural deity, but through the power of observation and seeing how the natural world works.

This became evident to me during a walk last year in early spring. It had been a long winter, and the landscape was still mostly brown and gray, with melting patches of snow on the ground. Yet, I stopped and noticed some green shoots that were pushing aside loose stones in the cracks of the asphalt and growing toward the sun. Those little shoots struck me as the actuality and symbol of hope, renewal, and life’s continuous struggle to “be.” Which is not to say that life is easy. Life is difficult, and often tragic. 

But we are the grass. We are struggling to “be.” That is hope, and that is a mindset that first responders can embrace. That is what Buddhism and Buddhist chaplaincy for emergency services can teach us.

If you are interested in Buddhist Chaplaincy (and we need more Buddhist Chaplains!), or in supporting through other roles in the emergency services please contact BEWES (Buddhists Engaged with Emergency Services) on their Facebook page. BEWES is an informal unofficial group that facilitates contact without liability, between Buddhists (advisors, chaplains, volunteers, etc.) working with emergency services and related organizations. One of our prominent members is Abbot Venerable Shih Jingang, who has served as a volunteer firefighter in Tasmania in Australia and is a hospital chaplain.   

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