I grew up in a family of news junkies. Even though we lived in Massachusetts, we religiously studied the New York Times, pored over the Boston Globe, and skimmed the weekly local paper. Later, the Wall Street Journal entered the mix for a more balanced ideological intake. My father had first dibs, and the rest of us skirmished over the remaining sections. Information was currency and power, even if it had a short shelf life. When the NYT published nutrition studies, my mother often changed our diet accordingly. When the paper printed reversals, she switched it again. The NYT had more influence over our household than a guru or rabbi. While I haven’t kicked my news addiction, I no longer read the NYT as a trusting devotee.
Recently, it published an article headlined: “A Self-Improvement Quest that Led to Burned Feet.” At a Tony Robbins seminar, “nearly two dozen” of more than 6,000 participants who walked over hot coals experienced second or third degree burns. “Nearly two dozen” sounds more ominous than a specific number, say 21, 22 or 23. The worst case scenario of 23 would be at most 0.38% of the people, a statistical blip.
Is this really a story worth publishing in a national forum?
An acquaintance and I discussed this on a Facebook page that posted the article. She thought people should be aware of the risks of “herd mentality”, when being in a group propels the collective to do things they might not otherwise want to do. I suggested re-framing “herd mentality” to “group energy.” It’s why people go to yoga classes, enroll in Master’s swim programs, find biking buddies and writing partners. The collective intention can help each individual override inertia and fulfill untapped potential. The folks at this seminar were not prodded at gunpoint over the coals. They had paid to attend, knowing that the coal walk was on the agenda, aware that the group dynamic might help them confront fear. They had been coached on how to approach it. And, medical help was on site; it’s not as if they were left alone with flaming feet. Since none of those interviewed regretted the experience, I ask again:
Why is this a story?
I’d be surprised if, in more conventionally acceptable activities such as fundraising walks, cycling races, marathons, etc., the injury rate was as miniscule as 0.38%. These events also require a financial commitment, involve large numbers of participants and are designed to help people confront and surpass their limits. Do we read about every twisted ankle, torn ligament and broken bone, possibly the result of someone trying to keep up with the “herd”? No. When a large race is covered, we learn about the winners, unusual athletes (such as the Chilean miner who ran in the NYC marathon after being rescued), and if there are deaths or hospitalizations. The focus is often on individual triumph over adversity, with scant mention of how the collective contributed to that victory. The best athletes in the world can’t “win” unless others participate.
Since many (in the West) believe hot coals hurt and burn, for me the story worth pursuing is:
Why is it that 99.62% of the people did NOT experience pain or burns? And how will they use this experience to improve their lives?
Why wouldn’t the New York Times pose those questions and cover that story?
The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander, offers an answer. The Boston area authors cite examples from their careers as therapist/coach and orchestra conductor, respectively, as tools for living in possibility. They explain that we can re-frame situations to create unanticipated outcomes rather continuing in the “downward spiral” in which many conversations, relationships and cultures exist. Newspapers and television thrive on the “downward spiral”, focusing on scarcity, lack, problems, unusual or odd events, and the stock market’s dizzying movements (how often does a pundit proclaim that the Dow is exactly where it needs to be?). The Zanders join other progressives in emphasizing that what we think of as “convention” is really “invention.” We create or inherit narratives about our lives and circumstances, repeat them, get others to believe them (if they don’t already), and suddenly that is how we and others see “reality.” Instead of living in a fluid and open way, aware of what is in front of us, we might box ourselves in with our stories. More often than not, I forget it’s all invented, but sometimes I step through the invisible walls of my box and experience what had seemed impossible minutes before. In those expansive moments I have little desire to open a newspaper, visit news sites and be sucked into the downward spiral. If everyone lived in possibility, the current media would rapidly spiral downward.
Firewalking is not news. It’s been around since 1200 B.C.E. in India. It’s not even new here. According to Wikipedia, “modern physics has explained the phenomenon by claiming that the amount of time the foot is in contact with the ground is not enough to induce a burn, combined with the fact that coal is not a very good conductor of heat.” Indeed, some of the injured blamed themselves, saying that they slowed down or stopped when they were advised to keep walking. If anyone had been upset, the journalist didn’t find them.
So, why is this a story?
Coming on the heels of a NYT article on the dangers of yoga, a piece widely criticized for its sensationalism, lack of statistics and balance, I can only conclude that the NYT published the firewalking piece to caution anyone considering a life of possibility (and maybe even downward dog) over the downward spiral. Careful, it seems to say, there is an itsy-bitsy-teeny-weenie chance you might get burned.