Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Allegory of The Burning House

A man stands on the street in front of his house, looking up at it with the fierce pride of creation, the pride of self, on his architectural achievement. A second man walks up and stands next to the first and gazes at the house in astonishment. Quickly he says to the first man, "Sir! Your house is on fire!"

The first man replies, "Yes, it is a fine house."

Confused and thinking the first man must have misheard him, the second man again tells him, "Your beautiful home will burn to the ground unless you put out that fire!" And to his astonishment, the first man turns to him with a look of slight annoyance, as one might give to a child who should not meddle in things he does not understand.

"Sir, I built this house, and that fire is a part of my house. If I put out that fire my house will not be mine any longer." He then turns back to gaze at his house once more. The fire spreads from just one of the upper windows to a second. The glass on the first window shatters causing a massive fireball to shoot outward. Both men duck instinctively and the first man gives a nervous chuckle, "See how well I have built my house? The neighbors are surely jealous of my superior work. This is truly the best way to build a house." He shakes off the initial nerves and sets his feet against imaginary resistance to his masterwork.

The second man, being a person of unbounded care and compassion, implores the man to see reason, to see that if he does not stop the fire now, there will be no more house of which he may be proud. The fire, he says, will consume the whole thing.

"Nonsense!" Exhorts the first man, "There are many ways to build a house, but this is the one I have chosen, and this one works best for me!" He is clearly growing impatient with the second man, and he wonders how the second man could be so stupid as to not see the simple genius of his house. Clearly the second man is a man of sub-normal intelligence.

"Look!" Shouts the second man, he is growing desperate for the first to see reason and save his house, for the construction is indeed beautiful and masterful. "The fire has spread to the houses next to yours! And look further! The neighbors have begun using water to stop the fire! Their houses will remain standing. Why then sir, will you not do the same for your own, beautiful house?"

Violently, the first man screams at the second, "Their way is not mine! And mine is perfectly acceptable! In fact, it is they who have destroyed their homes by not accepting the fire as part of their house!" He breathes heavily after his outburst, but coughs as the smoke drifts toward them in dark masses. The second man, unable to hold his composure any longer, lunges forward, "There is still time to save your house!" He collects the neighbors that have gathered to watch the blaze and rallies them to action, forming a bucket line and setting up hoses. The first man watches in astonishment for a few moments. For one instant, he see's the the love that this stranger has for something that is not even his own, the hatred the stranger has for the fire which, uncontrolled, has now spread to more than half the house. But it is only an instant.

"Get away from my house!" Bellows the first man, and he bars the way in. The neighbors struggle to get past him, but it is too late. The blaze now burns so hot that they cannot get close to the house and so they set to dousing their own houses with water, keeping them safe from the inferno. "Cowards!" The first man chokes out. He cannot breathe through the smoke that is issuing forth from the destroyed door and shattered windows. His flesh cooks as the flames lick his back. Finally, saved only by his animal instinct for survival, the first man rushes away from his house which has begun to collapse, completely engulfed in flame.

The next morning, the man still sits on the opposite side of the street, staring at the heap of ashes that was his house. The second man approaches him and asks him why he let it go so far, why did he not save the house, or permit the neighbors to help him save it? The first man chokes out a reply between breathy sobs, "I built my house my way. My own way. Everybody is entitled to do things the way they like."

The second man reasons softly, "But sir, your house was on fire."

"But it was my fire! It was a part of my house! It should not have destroyed my house. It is my opinion that the fire should have been a part of the house, and everybody is entitled to their own opinion!" The first man finishes his sentence in a whine, weakness and lack of conviction oozing from every word.

His kindness and unwillingness to accept the madness before him causes the second man to ask one final set of questions of the first, "Where sir, did you come by this fire, what was it doing in your house to begin with? Where did you come by the notion that fire belongs in the house?"

Succeeding only in a mockery of composure, the first man replies, "It is my opinion, that the uniqueness of a house on fire gives it beauty. It is the fire that gave my house it's superiority over the boring, and placed me higher than those sheep who could not see the value of the fire. And since it is my opinion, it cannot be wrong. Everybody is entitled to their opinion."

"But where sir, did the fire come from?"

The first man scoffs, able even in his misery to register scorn for one so stupid as the second man, "I set the fire myself."

Standing and walking away, the second man spits over his shoulder, for he can no longer muster any respect for this poor excuse for a living being, "This fire that you held onto, which damaged and destroyed all that you've worked so hard for, can never do anything other than that which it has done. Though useful when harnessed properly, it is not an opinion that fire is destructive. It is a fact."

The first man stares after the second and watches him enter his own beautiful home. He cries bitterly into his hands about how unfair life is and how could he be so cursed as to always end up surrounded by people who just don't understand him and his genius. How dare the second man say that the opinions of the first were what led him to this destruction. That fire was important to the identity of the house he wanted to build, he was sure of it, and he contemplated that perhaps he set it in the wrong room.


Anonymous said...

weird story..

Anonymous said...

What is the point of it? I mean it's a good story but why'd you write it? What is it really about? There has to be a meaning.

Dasani said...

Yes, there is a meaning. That's why it's an allegory.

While it's possible to give it numerous meanings, the inspiration for the story sprang from a conversation I had with a girl friend. She and I had been able to identify a belief she had about herself and the world that, empirically, was damaging for her to hold (fire). The girl is the house. She insisted, among other things, that it's her opinion and an opinion cannot be wrong, that the belief wasn't really destructive but instead added to her character, etc.

People have a tendency to hold on to destructive aspects of their personality and reject change because those aspects are "just the way they are, and if they changed it they wouldn't be themselves anymore." Many people create a personal fable surrounding those aspects of themselves, where they are bravely standing in opposition to the "sheep" masses, and even well intentioned friends (the second man) are seen as outsiders with no possibility of understanding the depth and importance of those pieces of their personality. They become so invested in the destructive portion of themselves, that they will literally fight against help.

Often times those destructive pieces of their personality can infect people around them (fire spreading to other houses) and those people who are in their right minds recognize the destructive change and remove themselves from the situation or take precautions to keep themselves whole (dousing with water).

The end of the story shows how, unless you understand the destructiveness of the particular aspect that you're holding on to (the fire), you won't see it as a problem, but instead will see some other peripheral issue connected to the issue (the placement of the fire in the house) as the real problem.

Try reading the story again and substitute personality or body with house and I'll never achieve anything/people are the enemy/I don't deserve happiness/sexuality is dirty/etc. with the fire.