Last night, I re-read Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire,” which seemed an appropriate choice based on last week’s polar vortex. In the story, the narrator quickly identifies the solitary human character’s primary flaw: he lacks imagination. To this man, the extreme cold is an observable fact, a stimuli that requires a response (in this case: dress warmly, keep moving, walk carefully). The narrator points out that such brutal temperatures don’t cause the man to reflect on the precarious nature of life and the frailty of humankind, safe only within certain ideal limits. Such reflections would have perhaps left him feeling fear and urgency, rather than simply experiencing objective intentionality. The dog, rooted firmly in inherent, ancestral knowledge exists to underscore what the man lacks: sufficient instinct.
I believe London regards the dog’s innate perceptions more highly than the man’s visual/experience-based wisdom; I mean, the dog lives and the man dies, if that’s not proof enough. The story is even carefully crafted to gradually shift the reader’s sympathies from the foolish man to the wise dog. But as someone who both struggles to heed my internal voice AND tends to ignore panic in favor of pragmatism, how am I to feel when the man repeatedly fails despite his best efforts to keep terror at bay, instead falling victim to his reliance on observable facts and his resolve to remain calm?
I’ve spent the better part of the last decade learning the hard lesson that ignoring my instinct generally leads to regret. “Shoulda stuck with your gut” is basically my life mantra — one I mutter to myself nearly as often as friends point it out to me. I’ve always thought of myself as imaginative (what writer doesn’t?), but after reading this story again, I’m beginning to wonder whether that’s accurate at all. Am I creative? Or merely observant? For the ill-fated man in London’s story, being observant has its limitations — our eyes can deceive us. But fear, based on accepting your weakness and recognizing danger, is what spares the dog. The man’s lack of imagination allows him to suppress his fear. His pragmatism allows him to push back panic. Ignoring the panic keeps him still for too long and seals his fate.
Are my pragmatism and sharp sense of observation hindrances to my own resolution to follow my instinct? How do I balance these seemingly opposing forces in my life? I don’t want to be figuratively frozen in place, so sure that my rational choices are correct that I push against the panic gnawing at my insides, pleading for me to run.