“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.” ~Charles Bukowski
I used to be scared to walk through the fire.
I was scared to do deeply unsettling, terrifying, hard things.
I was scared to face my biggest fears and struggles head on.
And for the greater part of my twenties, I did everything I could to avoid the heat.
In particular, there was one fire that scared me to my core.
As I graduated college, I was the happiest I’d ever been: I’d met my very best friends, traveled to small, colonial Mexican towns, studied meaningful subjects, and earned top grades. I was a natural student—alive and excited as I learned new languages, read interesting books, and idolized my professors. I was energetic, excited, and passionate; I’d created purpose—layers and layers of purpose—in every part of my college experience.
Naturally, I was scared to death to graduate.
Would I feel this fulfilled ever again? Would I be able to learn like this, so unabashedly, so completely, so happily, ever again? Would I meet remarkable people like this ever again?
I’d finally gotten everything figured out—purpose, happiness, friendships—and I had to start all over again. Start a new life.
As we were packing up, getting ready to leave, a friend’s words stuck with me: “This has been the most amazing four years. But don’t worry, we’ll find this again. The best is yet to come.”
My heart sank. I didn’t believe him.
With a heart full of dread, a mind full of doubt, and no clear path ahead, I graduated from college. I had to. But I vowed that I would always be my vibrant, college self—that the “real world” would never change me. That I would never grow up to be boring and dull. That I would avoid the pain of moving on for as long as possible.
That next chapter of my life—becoming an adult, diving into a job, paving a career path, making new friends, moving out, settling down, becoming more responsible—was a big, blazing, hissing fire, probably the biggest I’d ever seen. God, it looked so scary.
Instead of walking through that scary fire, instead of moving forward, I did nothing. I stayed exactly where I was, pain-free.
I went back to my old college campus almost every weekend. I drove to different cities all over the east coast to visit my college friends. I half-assed a few corporate jobs. I partied heavily and frequently, like a college student on a never-ending spring break. I spent all my money like I had no future. I lived at my parents’ house, with no plans of moving out or moving on.
As my friends were settling down and changing, walking through their own fires, I called them “lame” and “boring.” “At least I’m still my fun, college self,” I thought. I was the same old me and always would be—the life of the party.
But that fire never stopped blazing in front of me. It was always waiting for me, taunting me, daring me to walk through it. “Turn the page.” “Grow.” “Be someone different.”
As the years passed, six of them in a row, I was too afraid to even look at the fire. Even though it was getting harder and harder to ignore, I just couldn’t imagine how painful it would be to walk through it. To change, to grow.
So I turned away from it. Instead, I drank a lot. I ate even more. I settled into dangerous routines—partying every weekend, sleeping a few hours, and eating takeout every night.
I was waking up in the middle of the night, panting and gasping for air. I started to lose interest in all of my TV shows, my job, my social events, my health, and my family. I was living in a messy house with clothes everywhere. I was gaining weight uncontrollably—almost sixty pounds in a few years. I was at the doctor almost every week with sinus and coughing problems. I had no money, no credit, no motivation. Honestly, I was exhausted. Every day, I’d ask myself, “Is this it? Is this all there is to life?”
The fire continued to burn more brightly than it ever had. But, for the first time, I wasn’t so afraid to look at it, to examine it more closely. Huh. That was weird, it didn’t look as scary as it used to.
“Could I survive walking through it?” I wondered. I could almost hear it tell me, “You’re already in pain. Walking through the fire can’t be any worse than this.”
So I had two choices: continue being the woman who clung to her college glory, her outgrown, empty life, or be the one who walked through the fire.
So I did it. I finally walked in.
And it wasn’t easy. As expected, it was painful as all hell.
I started saving every penny. I quit my nine-to-five job—the one that had financed my drinking and partying—to take a trip to South America, where I was forced to sit with my scary thoughts.
I said no to all of my social obligations—all of the weddings, the happy hours, the club hopping, the after parties—and wondered if my friends hated me.
I started cooking at home, and my cooking was terrible.
I dusted off my laptop and worked from home, doing data entry projects and transcription jobs, even though I desperately wanted to nap.
I started a savings account when all I wanted to do was splurge at a restaurant and have a few beers.
I went to bed early, even though I dreaded nighttime. I meditated. I cried. I scrubbed my house, from top to bottom, for hours at a time. I took long, soul-searching walks. I wrote in a journal with furious intensity. I had heart-to-hearts with my sister that ended with both of us in even more tears.
Yeah, it was painful. The fire was changing and transforming me, just like I knew it would.
But then, the pain started to subside.
Glennon Doyle, my favorite writer, talks about walking through fires like this one. In the Big Magic podcast, she says that she actually runs toward fires, because they will (1) either warm you to your very core or (2) burn you up, creating a new, better person that walks out the other side.
My fire did both.
After the pain, I started to feel, well…warm. Like when I ate my first successful meal—my homemade meat sauce—and sat in a clean room for the first time in forever. When I hugged my journal after I wrote “I love me” in it. When I meditated with a world-renowned, enlightened guru. When I sat in front of beautiful fountains, lost in thought, in a Chilean park. When I snuggled up in my PJs, on a Saturday night, and watched the Disney Channel.
At the same time, my fire burned me the hell up. It did. The old me, the one that I had preserved for years, was gone. I wasn’t the same people-pleaser anymore. I wasn’t the “partier” anymore. I wasn’t the tired, exhausted, sad girl anymore.
In her place was a stronger woman—someone more spiritual, direct, and in tune with her feelings.
I became a better friend, because setting boundaries had actually made me more loving, patient, and understanding with others.
I became creative—a painter, a writer, and a planner.
I became a goal-setter, and someone who could actually accomplish those goals.
I became a person who will never run away from her fires again, because they’re life-changing and worth it, every time.
So this is what I say to you.
Run toward your fire. Don’t look back.
Yes, the flames will hurt. But the most beautiful moments in life are not easy. They’re painful. They’re challenging.
The pain of growth is better than numbness.
You deserve to grow. You’re meant to grow.
Let that fire warm you up, or change you, or both.
The more fires you run toward, the warmer, stronger, and more loving you will become. You can do this.
To walking into the fire! Onward!