Ancient myths speak of the great phoenix, a powerful and mystical bird invested with magnificent and glorious plumage. When it neared the end of its lifespan, the phoenix built for itself a great nest, littered with gold. Once complete, the phoenix would roost in the nest and set it aflame. From the ashes would arise a new phoenix, youthful and vibrant. Over the centuries, this particular bit of mythology has become associated with rebirth, redemption, and the cycles of life observable in nature.
Why should this bit of Egyptian belief be relevant today? Yes, stories of those fallen picking themselves back up again still resonate. Yes, stories of those who pull themselves up by their bootstraps to triumph despite adversity still catch our fancy. Yes, we still love our underdogs (like, say, John Scott). However, the phoenix symbolizes so much more than the oft-overtold tales of the figurative “little guy” beating long odds.
Another story might be told to better underscore why we ought still care about religiously-connotated birds that self-immolated. What follows is from a larger selection in Noah benShea’s Jacob the Baker:
“You see, Mr. Gold, each of us is alone. Each of us us is in the great darkness of our ignorance. And, each of us is on a journey.”
“In the process of our journey, we must bend to build a fire for light, and warmth, and food.”
“But when our fingers tear at the ground, hoping to find the coals of another’s fire, what we often find are the ashes.”
“And, in these ashes, which will not give us light or warmth, there may be sadness, but there is also testimony.”
“Because these ashes tell us that somebody else has been in the night, somebody else has bent to build a fire, and somebody else has carried on.”
“And that can be enough, sometimes.”
Jacob (the speaker) tells of the mute-yet-poignant witness borne by ashes. Every fire leaves behind ashes, every light leaves behind evidence it once brightened the world. And, in this evidence, there is silent encouragement given, hushed empowerment lent, quiet strength granted. Imagine the newly-birthed phoenix. As it soars high into the sky, buffeted by warm winds it never before felt, could it help but glance down beneath it? What would it see? A burnt nest, the ashes of its progenitor. In living, our new phoenix cannot help but notice the price paid by all phoenixes before it.
For us, then, what can we learn from the ashes we encounter? Certainly, the debt owed to those who came before us on our journeys cannot escape us. This being said, there is more the ashes tell us. As Jacob explained to his friend Mr. Gold, ashes tells us that someone else has lit a fire, has found what he or she needed to continue the journey he or she was on. While the ashes of its nest remind the phoenix of what was the cost to bring new life, they also illustrate that the predecessor of the phoenix was ready to give up its life, that it was ready to let go, having done what it needed to do. When we find ashes, whatever they are representative of, they tell us someone was able to move away from the fire’s heat and light. The ashes we see tell us that someone else was not willing to halt long in his trek away from ignorance, blindness. Ashes tell us a fellow man persevered.
What are our ashes, then? What remnants do we have that can still speak to us? The memories we have of beloved family members now deceased serve as ashes, reminding us of the support and love we need. Debts to old friends are ashes; while we may no longer be able to help those whom we are indebted to, we can carry forward the desire to offer kindness for kindness, aid for aid. A want to better ourselves, long ago forgotten, can be as ashes. What once burned may again burn. And of course, we cannot forget the ashes left behind by all the others in this world that we share our journeys with.
A famous poet (John Donne, for those wondering whence this quote came, in his essay “Meditation 17”) once remarked, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” This is what the ashes around us tell us. We are, though we walk by ourselves, never alone. We are part of something far grander than an individual enterprise, and we are now walking a path that has been trod before. Every new remnant of a fire we reach is the sign that someone has also once reached that point, a testament to the triumph of the will and the worthwhileness of perseverance. From the ashes comes new fire, new inspiration, new purpose, and new awareness of our place among all men. And that can be enough, sometimes.