5.20.2012

Can You Let Them Burn?

We have all had situations in life where we've had to walk away from someone or something. Maybe it was a person who you thought was a friend, but realized was really just using you. Or maybe it's someone you loved who headed down a bad path with drugs or alcohol, and for your own good, had to let go of. Or maybe it's a job, or a club, or something else.

I've written a great deal about how to realize when you need to walk away, and how to handle it. If you've been reading my writing for a while, you've no doubt seen me reference my favorite saying on the matter:

"When you realize you've been standing in shit, you don't stomp on it to punish it. You just walk away."

It's hard to walk away. I know that. You know that. And we've all been in situations where it's the last thing you want to do. But at some point you get sick of it all and you straighten your spine out and you walk.

But what then?

A lot of us like to feel self-righteous. We have this grand vision of the day that "they" realize they screwed up and now you're gone and they say "oh no, whatever will we do?"

I'll tell you exactly what they'll do: what they've always done. They'll fuck up and expect you to come clean up the mess. Not because they're mean, but because they're them. And people don't change. They won't stop being them just because you walked away, and it' unrealistic to expect them to. It's also unrealistic to believe you will stop caring all of a sudden.

So days or weeks or even months go buy, and then suddenly, you watch as they pour gas on themselves. Always before, you'd say "No no, don't pour that gas on yourself." And sometimes, they'd stop, and you'd have to clean up gas.

But other times, they wouldn't listen. Instead, they'd pick up the matchbook and begin fumbling with them. And always before, you'd say "No no, don't play with the matches! It's a bad idea to begin with, but now you're all covered in gas... Stop that!" And sometimes, they'd stop, and you'd have to clean up dead matches and gasoline.

And then, there are other times when they'd actually light the match. And you'd yell "No! Put it down!" And they'd look right in your eyes and light themselves on fire. And without fail you're there with the fire hose to put them out... And sometimes you get burned in the process. And as they're walking away drenched and slightly burnt, you're stuck cleaning up the flood, all the ashes, dead matches and gasoline. And just as you get done, there they are, pouring gas on themselves...

So you finally got sick of it and you left. That's hard. But it's nowhere near the hardest part.

The test of whether or not you've got the stones isn't when you hear about them playing with gas again or when you see them pick up the matches. That stuff is easy enough to ignore when you're feeling defiant and self-righteous. The test is when they set themselves on fire again.

Your heart is now on the line. Who you are as a person is being called into question. Did you ever actually care? Can you let them burn? Or will you, once again, rush to put them out (and end up cleaning up their mess again... Or worse, getting burnt yourself)?

No one ever talks about this part of it, because no one wants to admit to themselves that their love for someone or something -- even when that someone or something is harmful to them -- will threaten their resolve. The last thing anyone wants to say when encouraging someone to stand up for themselves and walk away is "oh, and by the way, eventually you'll get tested and will have to be a cold heartless person and let them hurt themselves, and you'll probably fail that test and it'll all be for naught. But hey, you should still stand up for yourself!"

 You will know when you're serious about changing your status in life and caring about yourself when you can watch someone you love who is harmful to you stand in front of you, douce themselves with the fuel of their own mistakes, and light themselves on fire -- and for the good of both you and them, you let them burn.

If you're the kind of person who can love someone through thick and thin and put yourself at risk for the greater good, it will be the hardest test you'll ever face. The one thing I've realized that makes this a little bit easier: if they loved you (or at the very least respected you) they wouldn't put you in that position in the first place. They'd listen and at least try to change. And they most certainly wouldn't put you at risk of getting burned along with them.

People who love you, protect you. After all, that's what you keep doing for them. If they're not doing the same for you, they deserve to burn. Let them light the way to a better path.