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Managing emotions—the forest fire management analogy

For the better half of the 20th century, the forest fire management policy in the United States was complete suppression. If a fire starts, put it out. However, there was no one around to put out the fires in the preceding 300+ million years; Yet somehow the planet managed just fine despite lightning-induced fires. In fact, some species of plant/tree require fire to reproduce, like the giant sequoia. It turns out that recurring ground fires actually are a vital part of the ecosystems in which they occur. That’s how nature works. It takes whatever environmental conditions exist and it adapts to them.

So what this policy ended up actually doing is allowing a lot more kindling to build up, reducing a supply of essential nutrients, and preventing some species from reproducing. When a fire does break out in these conditions with so much fuel available, the fire burns far hotter and intensely than it would otherwise literally leaving nothing but scorched earth. It takes so much longer for such a landscape to recover, whereas a typical low intensity ground fire might burn dead kindling and some quick-growing plants and grasses, leaving the larger, mature specimens.

One might say we are in our “suppression” phase when it comes to emotions. Our society tells us that some emotions are ok to express and others are not. And in more public forums, this holds true. However all emotions are designed to be expressed and shared with another, if only the innermost circle of your Dunbar relationships. This subtle nuance can be lost on people, and they end up in a state where emotions have been bottled up for so long that when they do come out, they do so in an explosion of anger and rage. Look to the mass shootings we've had as a horrifyingly large set of examples.

It is possible to get back to the natural state of things, just as we did with our forests. It takes a fair amount of effort and courage to process the backlog of emotions. But once that is done, emotions can be managed as they come in real-time the way that nature intended. It gets easier.


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