Let Small Fires Burn: A Lesson in Self-Advocacy

Mon, Apr 22, 2024

Did you know that fires are good for forests? Crazy but true. 

Small fires clear out undergrowth but leave bigger trees standing, helping to maintain a healthy ecosystem. The problem is, in the developed world, forest services stop nearly all small fires. 

This has dangerous consequences.

We suppress 98% of all small fires, which causes the undergrowth in forests to get far denser than if we allowed nature to take its course. Those small fires are natural cleanup systems. Stopping them creates a literal tinderbox waiting to ignite when there’s a fire we can’t control.

When that happens, it results in “megafires” that can reach the forest canopy and kill off trees that would have had no problem surviving a smaller fire. And, the problem is only getting worse with time. Globally, wildfire size, severity, and frequency have been increasing. (Science, 2015)

This is causing a complete reconfiguration in the way we manage forests and forest fires. Forest services are now incorporating small, controlled forest fires as a critical part of their overarching fire prevention strategies. 

There’s a powerful lesson here. (Saw that coming, did you?) 

As a young man, I was massively conflict avoidant. I actually thought it was a sign of maturity. 

I would go out of my way to avoid anything that could be perceived as a fight. Doing so usually came at the cost of self-advocacy. I’d just “take it on the chin” and move on. Only, I really didn’t.

All of those “little things,” the slights, injuries, injustices, and tiny hurts that I thought weren’t big enough deals to cause a fuss over, stacked up. I was storing them away, like the undergrowth in the forests. Building them up as fuel, unknowingly waiting for the spark that would set them off.

And when the fire finally caught, man did it burn; big, bright, and hot. It wasn’t always that I lost my temper (although, that would happen too). Sometimes I would just reach a point of no return and be completely done with a person or situation. Obviously, they never saw it coming.

That was the biggest problem: Even in instances where I was perfectly justified, by not addressing my grievances, not self-advocating, I was giving them tacit permission to continue doing whatever they were doing. 

I acted like it didn’t bother me, so they assumed that it didn’t.

What I should have done, and what I’m trying to get better at doing now, is let the little fires burn. If there’s a problem or uncomfortable conversation that needs to be addressed, I want to just get that out of the way up front. I’ll take the little burn now to avoid the megafire later. 

I’ve lost close friendships, partnerships, and caused irreparable damage to my most important relationships by not acknowledging and then advocating for the things that are important to me. In so many ways, self-advocacy is just as important for others as it is for you.

People deserve to know what’s important to you and what bothers you. 

Then, if they’re still unable or unwilling to compromise, you know it’s not a fit. But there are few tragedies bigger than losing someone who would have made the effort had you just given them the chance.

And, because of the way we’re wired, very often those “chances” come in the form of small fires. Little fights. Uncomfortable conversations. Honest admissions of hurt, pain, shame, or even embarrassment. Letting those little fires burn staves off the inevitable megafire in the future.

What are some of the little fires you put out that you should just let burn?