Column: At 15 I started my first fire — here’s how I’ve kept it burning

By Nathan Sirkin, Staff Reporter

Vivian Jones

I’ve spent the majority of my life being uncomfortable in my own skin. I grew up as an Asian adoptee in a white family and went to an all-white Jewish day school, so it’s not exactly a surprise as to why the struggle to find my identity has always been hard for me.

This uncertainty I had for myself invited into my life harsh self-criticism, self-doubt and a personal struggle with belonging.

In high school, I was diagnosed with depression and was sent to various different treatment centers and programs. At these programs, I was introduced to the concept of self-love — a concept I’ve heard and been herded toward my entire life by concerned and loving family members, as well as therapists and advisers.

The major turning point in my journey was at a wilderness program called Second Nature, where young people were placed into groups with staff members and had to live deep in the wilderness for personal reflection and growth.

At Second Nature, we had many different milestones to achieve in order to leave. A major one was starting a fire on our own — no gas, no matches.

To spark a flame, We were tasked with creating a bow and spindle out of sticks. By using the bow and spindle method, pressure and friction is applied to produce an ember. The ember would be blown into a tinder bundle, which would start a fire.

This task caused me great distress. Once again, I doubted myself and I thought I would never be able to start a fire, and, therefore, would never be able to leave. I pictured living my whole life in the woods and never being able to return to civilization, to the friends and life I left behind.

I would see my peers light the fire, and then a few weeks after, a truck would show up and take them away, which made me feel even more helpless.

When I shared my concerns with my therapist and the staff, they would just smile, and say, “I know you can do it.” Obviously, this external assurance meant nothing to me at the time. Regardless, I kept trying and trying.

One day, it happened. I got an ember.

However, it wasn’t just a physical fire that was lit. Something ignited inside me, too. I had accomplished something I perceived to be impossible. I’ve carried this accomplishment and this flame with me to this day.

Although, this flame would find itself dulled due to the nature of life and the ever-so-tempting habit of competitive comparison to others that is so common in city life. I often felt as if life in society was a toxic poison that filled me with anxiety and self-doubt — a poison I often felt like I was forced to drink in order to have a “successful life.”

I often romanticize my time in the woods, where I felt I thrived the most because it stripped me away from all my egos, my masks and my distractions.

I’ve spent nearly a decade trying to keep the flame inside me lit. I always return to self-love and self-affirmations, believing in myself and valuing myself.

This journey is different for everyone. Victoria Can, assistant professor of instruction in the Science and Mathematics Department, is no stranger to self-doubt and the journey of self-love.

Can teaches “Personal Wellness” at Columbia, which is aimed toward helping students better themselves physically, spiritually and emotionally.

“Growing up, I didn’t look like anybody. I [was] not as skinny as everybody else. I had this complex with myself,” Can said. “[I] always hated myself because I never really looked like anybody, I laughed too loud and I was too obnoxious.”

After many years of self-hatred and dealing with binge eating, depression and issues with personal achievement, Can realized that none of these things brought her happiness.

Can knew she had to do something different. The journey to long-term change would be difficult and require more positive thinking.

“When I look at myself, I’m not going to say terrible [and] bad things about myself. I’m just going to say, ‘Focus on the things that are good,’” Can said. “Maybe I like my hair too, maybe I like how my face looks or maybe I like my clothes. Just one thing at a time.”

Like me and Can, everyone has a flame inside them. We can all burn bright with care and proper maintenance, but if you constantly pour water — or in this case, self-critiques and self-doubt — onto a fire, it will extinguish.

Even if someone feels as if the fire inside them has died or dwindled, it can still come back to life with the right amount of effort.

With the right “tools” and the proper amount of care and love, anyone’s “fire” can ignite and shine brightly. There is a fire inside you, too. You just need to find it.