You’ve probably played this game before – the icebreaker that poses the scenario: Your house is on fire, and you can take only five things with you. What do you choose?
Designed to get at what you value most, this conversation-starter poses a theoretical question that can result in some pretty interesting insights about people and their stuff. You haven’t truly played the game, however, until there’s ash falling like snow in your yard and a phone call confirms you are next in the queue for mandatory evacuation.
We had been breathing smoke for days as the hills behind our home were consumed by fire. A shift of the wind overnight brought the flames close enough to warrant the decision to put our neighborhood on pre-evacuation notice. I listened to the voice on the automated call tell me that we weren’t in immediate danger, but we should be ready to go, just in case.
Ready to go? I looked around my 2,000 square foot home and at the three cars in the driveway, knowing that I had an indeterminate amount of time to decide which of our possessions should be staged in the “go” pile, and of those deserving items, which would actually fit in the cars. Home alone, I nervously started the room-by-room trek through all of my family’s worldly possessions, evaluating their importance and considering their size. As items were deemed worthy, they were moved to the living room where they could be loaded up quickly when evacuation orders came.
Here’s where the revelation comes in. A couple of them, actually.
My first attempt to identify worthy items was literally all about me. What do I need? Like? Love? What could I not live without? What will I regret not having if I leave it behind? It wasn’t until I stepped into my son’s bedroom that I was hit with conviction about answering these questions for all of my absent family members, which meant I had to retrace my steps with an entirely different set of questions in mind.
Most of what ended up being chosen didn’t surprise me: Financial paperwork, family documents, clothing for a couple of days. Computers made the cut, as did several tubs of pre-digital family photos and my son’s guitars. What did surprise me was that, after checking my list twice, all of these necessities fit easily into three modest cars. There was room to spare! So much so, that I made another pass through the house actually looking for more things to rescue, but I just couldn’t find much more to add.
Seeing all of our items-worth-saving in a pile on the floor made me realize how little there actually is in this world that we cannot live without. I took pictures of several large paintings that wouldn’t fit in the cars, and I photographed the wall in my living room that is covered in crosses, each given to me by special family and friends.
Then I sat, taking mental stock of the many, many possessions I had no need to save. For insurance purposes, I did one more lap around the house, videotaping what would be left behind before my son came home and helped me load up the cars.
Evacuation orders never came, thanks to more than 1,000 firefighters working day and night to control the blaze. Even so, I don’t regret being forced into the living of this scenario, which has gracefully exposed some selfish tendencies and revealed that what we really need in order to thrive isn’t more stuff, but the carefully chosen, thoughtfully cultivated right stuff.