Before we raise our lighters in tribute to the impending “dislike” button, let us not forget The Fire Challenge. Last summer, soon after the Ice Bucket Challenge had gained chilling popularity in my news feed, I scrolled into a video post entitled, “Fire Challenge Gone Wrong.” Not without a flashback to the burning room wherein I had been trapped over a decade ago, I clicked on the link and pressed play. Instantaneously my scars began to itch, like some impish, invisible demon was poking at me. I wanted so badly to poke back, but the air between my flesh and the screen was too thick, as if filled with smoke.
I was disturbed less by the glaring, flailing teenage body tearing at the shower curtain and the camera-jerking bystander screaming, “Get back in the water!” than by the cool confidence leading up to ignition. Rewind: yes, it was the casualness in that pouring of nail polisher remover down the chest— the heedless floating of a match to the innocent navel— that got to me. There might as well have been a caption that read: “#nbd #burningalive #idareyou #blazeup.”
Even more so, I was disturbed to discover the viral chain of, can I say accidents, that pulled me down this Youtube rabbit hole. (Unease won’t stop me from surfing.) I learned that one hospital in Florida admitted an eleven-year-old boy in critical condition, and within forty-eight hours, they welcomed seven patients who had also accepted the Challenge between Mississippi, Missouri, and Georgia.
Incidents in New York and North Carolina were also reported between July and October 2014.
Comments on a compilation span from “Let them die!! We don’t need stupid people in this world” to “they deserve it. they stupid asf.” There was so much hatred and no compassion.
I was never technically on fire. My second and third degree burns covering 68% of my then-teenage body had resulted from a mere proximity to flames. In April 2005, I had been asleep with my sister in her bedroom while a candle, left to its own little dying glow, ignited some furniture. By the way, this was long before MySpace. My sister and I choked our way across the floor, blinded and scorched to silence. It was something worth sharing.
This kind of pain is the worst I can conceive, and even the scar-less can understand without having to consult the victims that their regret was probably immediate.
Now anyone who’s ever endured the wicked heat of this uncontrollable beast has, to be sure, a special place inside my heart, even if they happen to be their own arsonist.
I imagine it must feel good for some, to make fun of others’ foolishness. It’s self-affirming; it makes you feel smart and safe (“I would never be so dumb!” or “Why are they screaming? What did they expect?”). It feels good not to burn. In turn it somehow feels good to watch others burn.
The shallow judgment and misdirected rage seem more damaging than the action of setting oneself on fire. Perhaps the audience should be critiquing their own desire to wish death upon these voluntary sufferers. Whether their minds were in the right place when they struck the match does not discount the fact that they still have nerve endings. Funny how human empathy can make exceptions for those we consider intellectually inferior!
I might have every reason to hate these so-called ignorant daredevils, who willingly subjected themselves to an agony I once had no choice but to withstand. I could easily aim the sparks of my aggression, fear, and wisdom @ them and their something-k followers who worship their folly. But I do not view strangers as red hot targets; we are all arrows in the dark.
Naturally, my initial impulse was to share my unique opinion with a social network. Besides expressing how absolutely appalled I was, I blamed such nonsense on the lack of social representation of burns and the real challenges they entail. For a while I was convinced that, if only I hurried up with my memoir about becoming a burn survivor, then I might be able to make a difference. I realize now how proud I was, and still am, and how eerily similar this feeling is to those of the self-affirmed, superior commenters.
80 people liked my post. It felt good to have this attention. I felt momentarily like a fearless leader, an idol, a worthy spectacle. This is what motivates people to share videos of their bodies burning!
Sometime later, I wrote a poem about The Fire Challenge in light of peer pressure and the desire to be accepted at any cost. What I failed to recognize was that my art was failing to make any significant or far-reaching impact. Thankfully, some survivors of the Challenge posted follow-up videos warning others not to repeat their mistake, but those videos did not compare in share-worthiness.
In the past year, I have thought off and on about The Fire Challenge. For what it’s worth, I’m formulating an elaborate worldwide fire safety plan. For now, I will only argue that The Fire Challenge demonstrates one of many ongoing social challenges among the digitally-empowered youth. It reminds us of our susceptibility, the fragility and flammability of our psyches, and how far we’re willing to go in order to be seen, heard, and loved. I will forgive these self-appointed burn survivors for their efforts to be known, because I know it is a lesson they will be learning and teaching for the rest of their logged-in and -out lives. May we keep them and the trends that influenced them on our radar.
This essay has been nominated for The Flounce Non Fiction Writer’s Award 2015. Reader feedback in the comments section will be taken into consideration by the judges. Contest Rules.