Lessons from a Fire

Very early in the morning of April 1st, Friday, a fire spread through the Faculty Center of my University, the University of the Philippines. It started on the third floor, and spread quickly throughout the rest of the building. The “FC” (as it was fondly called) housed the offices of over 250 professors from the College of Social Science and Philosophy, as well as the College of Arts and Letters. The building was close to fifty years old and in truth, the structure of the building itself was of little importance – what was much more devastating was the materials lost within the building: decades’ worth of records were burned, along with important written documents in the fields of history, sociology, and anthropology to name a few. And even more than that, each professor’s office was full of their personal belongings: from treasured books, to important documents, to even memorabilia from decades of teaching. The value of the things lost is beyond calculation.

Though I was officially a student of the College of Music, I had spent much time in the College of Arts and Letters while I was an undergraduate, being an “unofficial minor” at the department of English and Comparative Literature, and also the department of European Languages. The building felt like my second home in the university, and I was devastated thinking back on the hours spent in my professors’ rooms for one-on-one consultations.

It’s been a few days since then and I’ve more or less organized my thoughts and figured out two major perspectives on it: the physical, and the spiritual.

It is suspected that the cause of the fire was faulty electrical wiring. And this is where the “physical” lesson comes in: We should not take maintenance for granted. There is a saying that goes “prevention is better than cure” – or in this case, prevention would have been a lot better than dealing with all the damage at the moment. Take the time to care of your things and more significantly, of yourself. Don’t take your health and your body for granted, don’t only start worrying about it only when you are already sick. Thank G-d for your health, and keep your body in good condition with a balanced diet and exercise while it is still healthy.

But there is a deeper level to this, the “spiritual” lesson: At the end of the day, all our physical things will fade away, no matter how much we work at keeping them in good condition. We can keep them safe and try to maximize lifespan of our material possessions and even our body, but these things will never be anything more than fleeting, temporary things. It took only took the fire a few hours to consume decades’ worth of hard work of thousands of people – students, professors, and staff combined. All our physical things can disappear in an instant, it’s a fact. Therefore, it’s worth considering that it’s more worthwhile to spend our time and efforts on spiritual pursuits: performing mitzvos, acts of chessed, and the like. These things are outside the physical realm, and can’t be touched with things like fires and other natural disasters.

There is a story I once heard from Mrs. Orit Esther Riter that goes as follows (Note: I’m writing this out from memory. In case I got any detail wrong, please let me know!): There was once a man who went on a journey to a faraway land to earn some money for his family. Once he got there, he was surprised to find jewels everywhere. As he began frantically picking up the jewels and stuffing as many as he could in his bag, he noticed some of the locals laughing at him. Finally, one approached him and said, “What are you doing collecting those things? They’re everywhere, they’re worthless. Do you know what’s REALLY special? These sweet potatoes. Take them, they’re worth a lot more than those jewels.” The man was relieved to learn this before making the mistake of bringing home all the jewels, so he instead filled his bag with sweet potatoes and began his long journey back home.

The moment he got home, he joyfully informed his wife that they were now rich and could live comfortably the rest of their lives with a worry or care. He proudly opened his bag but to his horror, all he saw were rotten sweet potatoes. All his journey home, he had been bringing around a heavy bag full of worthless rotten vegetables and now, they had nothing.

The same lesson applies in our lives and this world, it is said: We are all that man on a journey, a journey to the physical world. And here, society bombards us with the message that things like prayer, mitzvos, and chessed (acts of kindness) are worthless and instead we should use our time and energy collecting material things. But these things are fleeting, and have no lasting value – they are only sweet potatoes that will rot. Our spiritual endeavors are the jewels, and we should continue “taking” as much of these as we can, because once we begin our journey back “home,” our time is up and we’ll no longer be able to gather these.

It is important to note that this is not to say we should completely ignore the physical world and focus purely on the spiritual. Rather, a major point of Judaism is using the physical in order to access the spiritual. If we remember that the physical is only a means to an end (i.e., the spiritual) and not an end by itself, we won’t get too distracted by it. We’ll remember that it is not about achieving things for the sake of achievement, but for growth and for pushing yourself beyond your limits. It is not about earning lots of money just to buy all our wants, but to use some of that money for helping others also. If we used all our physical endeavors as our means to reach our spiritual goals, our perspective on life would be so different, and we would reach spiritual heights we didn’t know we could.

As a last word, perhaps the burning of this building is another strong reminder that one can never truly know what will happen the next day. The day before the fire, I don’t think a single soul thought to themselves, “This is the last day I am walking through these halls, I should treasure it while I can.” None of us I think go through our days thinking “Today is my last day alive” – yet for all of us, that day truly will come, whether we are prepared for it or not. So perhaps it is something we should all consider, at least every evening – resolve all conflicts, forgive all who need to be forgiven, give love to your loved ones, and apologize to those who you need to. You never know what tomorrow may bring, and the last thing any of us want is regret.

So with all this said, thanks for all the memories and lessons, FC. With or without your physical building, you will always remain a strong symbol for what UP stands for and always strives to impart to its students: Honor and Excellence.

To read more about the incident, here’s an article.

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