Is Being Useful the Answer to what Ails Us?

Hersch Wilson
9 min readFeb 19, 2024

An Excerpt from “Firefighter Zen: A Field Guide for Thriving in Tough Times”

Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business. Charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business . . . The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
My partner Laurie wanted to talk about my truck. It was beaten up, had a lot of miles on it, but it had helped me tow engines and Med Units out of the mud, deliver generators up challenging driveways and run on innumerable calls in the middle of the night in all kinds of weather. I had a relationship with that vehicle.
Laurie thought otherwise.
“Your Suburban is a piece of crap . . . We should sell it.”
I shook my head. I loved that truck, so I said: “But . . .”
Laurie raised her hand.
“REEEE!” My pager vibrated. “Hondo, structure fire, mutual aid for El Dorado. Flames showing.”
Me: “Gotta go!”
A difficult conversation was avoided. A few minutes later, driving the suburban in the general direction of the fire, I heard on my Fire Department radio, “Explosion. The garage is fully involved, twenty-foot flames and black smoke. House is evacuated.”
I parked a block away, pulled my gear bag out of the back, kicked off my shoes and bunkered up: pants, jacket, and helmet. I grabbed a fire ax and a medical bag. We moved quickly into the tight group around the El Dorado Chief. There was urgency in the air.
Mike, my partner that day, asked the Chief, “How can we help?”
The Chief yelled to us over the roar of the garage fire. “The explosion was in the garage, it’s gone! We have a crew knocking down that fire from the outside. Gas and electric are turned off. We’re going to set up a fan and send a crew through the front door. You four are the entry team. Two in, two out.” The Chief nodded at a group of firefighters.
He looked at two of us, “Can you grab the vent fan off Engine 2 and set it up?”
We both nodded; it was time to be useful. We lifted the big fan out of the engine, set it up in front of the door and got it started. It would clear smoke out of the house as the team of two entered the house.
Later, we cut trenches into the roof to make sure fire hadn’t spread. We used our thermal imaging camera to peer through the smoke and the walls to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. Finally, that day, “useful” meant salvage: hauling wet, burnt, black and twisted junk out of the garage.
By the end, we were exhausted, dehydrated and hungry. But there were fist bumps all around. We’d lost the garage, but we saved the home.
I drove home after the fire and pulled into our garage. I turned off the engine, and the Suburban shuddered a few times before it stilled. It was an old truck.
Laurie stood there, arms crossed and smiling. She laughed as I, stiff and sore, got out of the truck and limped towards the house. She was a firefighter, so she knew why I was smiling; she knew the feeling of being useful.
She hugged me and whispered in my ear, “I guess you and that truck have a few more years left in you.”
The question, “How can I help?” is my favorite meditation and prayer. It’s answered by the most essential spiritual shift any one of us can experience. At that moment, we stop thinking of ourselves. At that moment, we exist for someone else; to help them, save them, to comfort them, to reduce their suffering. In that moment we become courageous beyond measure. We become the fiercest of angels battling suffering and chaos.
The joy of being a firefighter is we get to solve the problems of people that they can’t solve. From fighting a house fire to doing CPR on a dog — to cleaning a stove — we get to be useful. And that in my simple calculus creates meaning. In other words, whether I am turning on a hydrant with a wrench or putting a c-collar on a patient, I feel engaged and part of something larger than myself. If only temporarily, in those moments I am not self-obsessed. I am useful. That to me is “meaning.”

Wrench. Hammer. Kitchen. Computer. Shovel. Stethoscope. Wouldn’t it be odd if all the tools for finding meaning in your life were this simple? If the real answer for the quest for meaning wasn’t a spiritual journey but rather work that solved problems, work that was useful?

A small yet revolutionary premise: our fulfillment in life is not linked to money, nor fame nor status — as alluring as they might be. It is directly connected to our ability to be useful, to do work in service to others.
This premise might cause angst because in our culture it is counter-intuitive advice. We swim in a sea of money, fame and status. (George Bush’s famous advice after 9–11, when people were searching for meaning was to “go shopping.”) We are inundated with the 24/7 media message that life is about beauty and riches. Individuals spend their lives thinking if I only got into this college, had this job, this amount of money, that car, house, vacation — this number of followers on Social Media — then I would indeed be fulfilled.
But it is an illusion.
I once taught a class to final semester high school seniors on “Meaning.” One student presciently wrote this paragraph as part of an assignment:
“My parents spent a lot of money for me to go to this prep school so that I could get in to a good college so then I could get a well-paying job so then I could afford to send my kids to a prep school. . .What’s the point?”
The illusion that we share — to greater or lesser degrees — is that money and status are our tickets to a fulfilling life.
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studies what makes people happy. He pointed out a study that surveyed individuals in the US since 1956. He noted that 30% of the people surveyed said that they were “very happy.” The interesting part was that number hasn’t changed over time, even though personal income — adjusted for inflation — has almost tripled. Once income is a few thousand dollars over the minimum poverty threshold, material wealth doesn’t seem to correlate with increased happiness.
Then what is the path?
As you probably already have surmised my answer is easy. Become a volunteer firefighter — just kidding! But why individuals volunteer might help us understand the core elements of fulfillment.
Why firefighting? I’ve had the opportunity to interview dozens of firefighters over the last few years, and I’ve asked them the same question, why did they become a firefighter? As a career firefighter, it is not for the money, and there is a lot of stress that comes with the job. For volunteers, of course, there is no money, the pressure is similar, the hours are often terrible, and it can be amazingly inconvenient. (Ask any significant other of a volunteer. . .) Although the answers were all different, they clustered around three basic needs. “I want to help people” For some people, the desire to help is as natural as breathing. They see need in their world and their instinct is to go towards it, to help solve the problem. Obviously, this is not unique to firefighters. It is innate in many of us. Once during a blizzard, an SUV with a family slid off the interstate into an arroyo at high speed. Nothing unusual about this crash, (no one was seriously injured) but what made it stick in my mind was watching the number of individuals, stop, get out of the cars and run down to help. It is a potent aspiration to want to help. The difference is that firefighters want to make a vocation out of helping people.
“I want to part of something bigger than myself.” A firefighter I interviewed told me he didn’t want to be just a random individual that nobody knew. He wanted to part of something bigger than only himself, doing good in the world. There is the sense of being subsumed in a task with others, pulling together against the tide. This in and of itself is a powerful and addictive force. We are fed the diet of individualism in this country, yet the truth is that most great things were accomplished by the collective, by groups, by teams working together. From creating the constitution to raising barns, to building ships, to putting men on the moon: they were done by people coming together to focus on a task more significant than themselves.

In the middle of the road of my life, I awoke in a dark wood
where the true way was wholly lost. Dante

“To fill a void.” It is not uncommon to wake up in the middle of your life with the sense that something is missing. Call it a mid-life crisis, the story I heard more than once was a craving for meaning. The questions loom, who am I and what is my life about? What is my purpose? What should I do with the rest of my life?” Interestingly, on the volunteer side, a lot of new volunteers — men and women — are in the forties and fifties (and sixties) coming from successful lives and happy families, but, in their words, there just seems to be a void. For many becoming a middle-aged volunteer firefighter is the simple answer to those existential questions. Once, on a training evening, a new firefighter (in his sixties) got to run the engine for his first time. After a few minutes, he exulted, “This is the best job ever!” He had found, in Joseph Campbell’s words, “his bliss,” He had found his new meaning (and he was having fun). The answers to creating meaning are as follows:

  • Work that helps others, that is useful.
  • Being part of something larger than yourself.
  • • Taking action to “fill the void.”

Vital signs
In the field, when we assess a patient, one of the necessary actions we take is to look at their vital signs; are they alert? Open Airway? Breathing? What is their pulse, blood pressure, skin color? This helps us surmise whether a patient is sick and needs to be transported immediately or if we can “stay and play.” (Get more history, do a more thorough assessment).
In the same way, we often need to do a set of “vital signs” on ourselves. We can ask ourselves those big “vital” questions: What is my life about? Have I created meaning? How am I useful? What should I do with the rest of my life?
Thinking deeply about those questions often brings us to three choices about what we can do next. First, we can choose a profession that is our “important work,” that aligns with our “meaning.” Whatever the vocation, we feel as if we are contributing to the larger good and using your unique skills.
Second, we can learn to reframe our existing job. I once interviewed a woman who worked on an assembly line putting together pediatric IV kits. Repetitive work. But she reminded me that it had two qualities that made it useful and part of her purpose. First, it was supporting her family and second, she told us, she was not just assembling IV kits, she was part of the chain of individuals saving the lives of kids. It created meaning for her.
Finally, the third choice: If you have the time, volunteer. There are thousands of opportunities. The right volunteer opportunity; working at an animal shelter, coaching a kid’s team — becoming a volunteer firefighter — can shift your priorities. There was a story in the Wall Street Journal a while ago about a Mergers and Acquisitions Banker riding the train into Manhattan for what was arguably one of the most significant client meetings of his career. But on the train, all he was obsessed about was getting the right batting order for the Little League team he coached. The dealings of his trade was banking, but his passion, his “comprehensive business” was coaching baseball. Simple. Full of meaning. Useful.

Hersch’s award winning book, Firefighter Zen: A Field Guide for Thriving in Tough Times, is available at bookstores and online. Be brave. Be Kind. Fight Fires.



Hersch Wilson

Writer. Retired Firefighter. Dog Lover. Buddhist Beginner.