Wildfires Of The Soul: How to begin again after tragedy
H G Wells not only recovered from suffering but built a better life out of it – and we can do the same.
H G Wells almost did not become the writer we know him as today, and he almost failed to become that writer several times. From a young age, Wells spent long periods convalescing in bed as the result of various illnesses and accidents. His first spell of time off sick was caused by a broken leg. As it mended, Wells read his way through stacks of library books and nurtured his fascination with alien worlds. This malady became the origin story of the sci-fi writer.
At the age of fourteen, he was removed from education and made to work to support his family. The miserable thirteen-hour work days might have broken him, or he may simply have vanished into the pedestrian obscurity of an ordinary life, but instead this experience informed three of his later novels and their critiques of class and wealth distribution in his society.
Wells fought his way out of his dire situation and began a science degree under “Darwin’s Bulldog”, T H Huxley. He set his sights high and raised himself higher. And then he lost his motivation for learning, dropped out, and suffered a foul in a rugby game that set off a series of life-threatening haemorrhages. Here, Wells flounders, splashing a weak doggy paddle to keep his head just above the surface of depression, before slowly sinking beneath the waves.
And then something happened. No doubt Wells had his own way of accounting for his improved mental state, and some of his biographers have done the work of laying out theories and noting events that occurred around that time, but there will always be – as there always is in depressions that finally lift – an ineffable element, a minor miracle that aided his recovery, the “something that happened”. Swimming back to the shore of sanity and good health, Wells writes to a friend:
“I am not a broken down invalid. I have merely had a revolution in my constitution – on the principle that a man who would revolutionise the World must first revolutionise himself.”
I recently went through my own period of despondency (a tidy word for mental hell) and this quote from Wells – which I read in the TLS while blowing my coffee cool and wondering how much work the depression would let me do that day – spoke to me in a way I cannot fully explain. Something of its expression at that particular moment, with my mood fairly stable and my mind at a particular level of receptivity, meant that it hit me wonderfully hard. I took notice. I began to think. The dust fell off the gears, they groaned into slow action, and I began writing again for the first time in months.
It is not incidental that the life cycle of the phoenix turns on the destructive-creative force of fire. The bird burns to embers and is reborn in the ash. Fire destroys and creates. Forests are dependent on wildfires to clear out the accumulating debris of decaying plants that would otherwise suffocate the soil, starving organisms of the nutrients buried beneath dead mulch. This is why we have invented the controlled burn, or “prescribed fire”, where experts deliberately set fire to portions of forests, letting them burn, then extinguishing the flames. We harness the creative force of fire while inhibiting its most destructive tendencies.
We all undergo wildfires of the soul, the breakdown and – if we are fortunate – the subsequent reconstitution of our character, sometimes of our whole life. If it is an uncontrolled blaze – a depression, a sickness, a loss of love, friendship, or career – it can consume us. At its worst, we are reduced to ash, the dust from which we came. Often, we stumble on as charred wrecks, weakened by the flames and fearful of feeling them again, and so we hide from anything that might burn us. Sometimes, we are able to work with the fire and give in to its cleansing nature while tossing water on parts we wish to keep alive.
Wells experienced such wildfires in his own life: the broken leg, his removal from school, the rugby injury, the repeated near-fatal haemorrhages. But each time, Wells returned, and any of us can, in principle, be similarly reborn. After the dead matter of regrets, mistakes, and squandered opportunities are burned up, a space is cleared into which we can grow as new selves living new lives. Just as a wildfire kills off trees weakened by disease, a wildfire of the soul can show us where we need rebuilding or reinforcing, burning the most where we are least able to fend off the flames. This is an insight we may never have received without the stress-test of flames showing us weak roots in need of mending and dead branches worth chopping off.
There is an analogy here to the controlled burn set deliberately to incur the benefits of a fire with as few of its downsides as possible. We can deliberately set these fires of the self, and we do so every time we engage openly in a conversation where we seek out all the places we might be incorrect on an issue. We set the fire when we honestly appraise our relationships and cast off those that are holding us back or harming us, and which have not been amenable to our best efforts at reformation. We burn away the dead brush of our lives when we give opposing viewpoints a hearing, one that is fair and open-hearted (a quality without which an open mind is ineffectual). The seeds of this differing worldview might not yield an entirely new forest of ideas, but a few of the dead logs can be cleared and diversity brought to your intellectual and ethical woodland.
Wells took his own close proximity to death as a catalyst for change, and he abandoned the life that had been comfortably non-challenging and became a writer of fantastical stories, creating storylines involving time travel and Martians that would resonate long after he had died. Before this dividing line in his life lies the loss of motivation that led to him abandoning the high-minded ideals of his university days; after it, we find the man who picked those ideals back up and wrote hundreds of novels and pamphlets that examined and exposited considerations of class, wealth, race, and (of course) gripping fiction.
The well-worn phrase that charity begins at home pointedly does not say that it ends there. Put your house in order before criticising the world, to paraphrase an injunction from a massively popular book of rules for living, is itself borrowed from the Buddha, who is purported to have said, “One should first establish in oneself what is proper; then only should one instruct others.” Each of these is an alternative form of what Wells suggested in his letter: “...that a man who would revolutionise the World must first revolutionise himself.”
For an explanation of why this is, we can look to the skies: in the event of an airplane emergency, parents are advised to put on their own oxygen masks before putting masks on their children, for the simple reason that you cannot help anyone if you run out of air yourself. If you want to be useful, don’t let yourself become useless through negligence of your own needs.
There is a wonderful reciprocity to this, a positive feedback loop in which I give to others because it returns something to me so that I have more to give others. In my own experience of depression, when I cared too little for myself to find self-benefit motivating, I could still get the requisite kick up the ass from the thought of how those I loved might be rewarded by my efforts to get better. Desiring for my company not to be the miserable dead-weight it must have been for my wife, I pushed to improve beyond the effort I could expend for myself. When I no longer cared to get better for my sake, I could still push on for her sake, and for the sake of my family and friends.
If the point of suffering through wildfires of the self – or, in another popular phrase, dark nights of the soul – is simply to come out the other side intact and unchanged, why go through it? Granted, sometimes mere survival is all we can hope for in the face of the worst suffering. In these cases, survival is required so that one might go on to do the work of growth once recovered and healthy. There are those other times, however, and they obviously include autodidactic journeys taken willingly through the flames, when a sense of purpose is the firebreak that constrains and directs the burn, making it worthwhile. This is, in the end, the fundamental point of Wells’ idea as written in his letter: that the result of his convalescence was revolution. He would be a new man, destroyed and then forged in the fire.
• The Correspondence of H.G. Wells: Volume 1 1880–1903, H G Wells, ed. David C Smith (1998)
• “On the love island of Dr Moreau”, in TLS, Michael Sherborne (2021)
• 12 Rules for Life: An antidote to chaos, Jordan B. Peterson (2018)
• The Dhammapada, trans. Acharya Buddharakkhita (1985)