Lessons from a burning building

A parable about change and what it takes to be able to make it happen, from the perspective of the ledge of a building.

Have you ever wondered how someone could jump off the ledge of a building that’s on fire? Picture the scene, the flames roaring out of the windows of a multi-story building. The top floors are totally engulfed, thick black smoke filling the air. The person stands on a ledge way up toward the roof. The fire department and dozens of onlookers are craning their necks to see. Floodlights light up the night. There is no air inside the building, so there is nowhere to go. And the building is too high for a ladder. So the person stands there, waiting, deciding, frozen.

No one ever jumps off the edge of a building in normal circumstances. Well, except for daredevils and others who don’t concern us here. You wouldn’t do this. Not even if there were one of those trampoline-looking contraptions at the bottom, the ones that (they claim) will ensure your safe landing. From this vantage point up here (and sorry, but I’ve had to bring you up here) that trampoline down there looks like a hula hoop. There’s no way that it would hold you if you jumped. You imagine that you would go straight through it like a cartoon character. And anyway, your feet have become rooted to the spot. Jumping off the ledge seems like a daydream, nothing that would happen in real life. You’re staying right here.

And then the flames come.

Can you feel them? The increasing heat of the stone on your back as you lean against the outer wall of the building? The smell of smoke, almost like a campfire smell but acrid and foul, with hints of plastic and malevolence. And that sound, that howling sound, growing louder from behind you, from a place unseen. You don’t dare turn and look in the window for fear of seeing it.

And then you look down again, at at the ground. You’d at least be away from this fire, this situation, this reality you are a part of. Would you make it? After a while, the jump, so recently not even to be contemplated, becomes a remote possibility. The ground looks just as far, and your fear is just as deep. That pit in your stomach, right above your navel, growing tighter as it always has. But you start to realize that there’s another fear, one that is stronger, white hot, unnameable, while the other is just a dull ache. The balance has changed inside you. As the fire grows closer, you realize that staying here won’t be an option for much longer, especially if the fire keeps growing.

“There is safety down there.” You try to make yourself believe it, but it’s hard. There still is a part of you that feels safe right here. You’re at least standing on something, right? You’re not falling through empty space into the unknown. And yet you start to wonder if you really even believe that anymore. Maybe there’s nothing safe about this place, even though it feels safe to be standing on your two feet. Safety might be somewhere else. But you might need to do the unthinkable to get there.

And so you stand there, feet on the edge. Looking down. What will you do?

No one wants to jump. And no one will jump, that is, unless the alternative becomes that much worse.

What is your building? Are you willing to jump from it? What will it take before you are ready?

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