The Children’s Fire is a story, a symbol, a fragment of ancient wisdom, a longing, and a way of thinking and perceiving. It was cast aside a long time ago and the consequences of this careless dereliction of duty have cost us dearly. It also has the vision and power to create waves and inspire action.
I was introduced to the Children’s Fire one wintry night in the coastal mountains of northern California as I sat by a blazing fire in a forest glade. I was tense, alert, and mindful that every word, gesture, and glance was pregnant with significance. Even though I had no way of knowing the extent to which this brief encounter would influence my life, I experienced it as a tryst to which all roads had been leading even before I had learned how to walk. Since that time the Children’s Fire has become the cornerstone of my thinking about leadership.
A few hundred years ago, wise women and men, elders of a people who over a few short decades would see their former way of life disappear forever, enquired deeply into questions concerning life, living, dying, relationship and meaning.
Tongues of flame, burnt red, liquid gold and orange leapt at the lowering sky, the only sound the crackling of branches as they blistered and shook, shaking free the ancient sunlight so long held and disguised as dead wood. The elders would sit together in council and many questions important to the wellbeing of the people were discussed. A recurring question that concerned the nature of leadership and the wielding of power was this.
“How shall we govern our people?”
One of the great challenges which the elders considered was the complex relationship between the short and long term. It was understood that actions which yield short-term benefits may not always serve the tribe’s best interests over a longer-term. As with all their animal relatives they understood that children were their most important investment, the tribe’s future. This naturally led them to understand the necessity of ensuring that their leaders always sought to secure a safe and prosperous future by testing every major decision against the future wellbeing of the children. In the indigenous culture from which the Children’s Fire emerged everything physical was an expression of the invisible spiritual life force flowing within it.
Inhabiting a world of living symbols, each one a clue to the spiritual power that charged it, the chiefs ordered that a small fire be kindled in the centre of their council circle. This small fire was called the Children’s Fire. It served to remind the chiefs of the first law:
No law, no decision, no action, nothing of any kind will be permitted to go out from this council of chiefs that will harm the children.
Each chief pledged themselves to the Children’s Fire. It was on this condition that they took their seat as a chief on the council. Similar insights emerged from many indigenous peoples, one of the most famous being the Haudenosaunee confederacy from which came the Great Law of Peace, and within this the Seventh Generation principle. The law of Seven Generations advises on the wisdom of considering the impact of any decision on those born seven generations hence. The Children’s Fire and the Seventh Generation principle are expressions of the same powerful insight into human behaviour. Well known by many and heeded by few.
The Children’s Fire is a pledge to the welfare of unborn future children (human and non-human alike) but more profoundly it’s a pledge to life, a commitment to the responsibility carried by each successive generation to safeguard the vitality and regenerative capacity of the earth. It insists on a circular economy and it views any action that compromises the wellspring of creativity from which our species has emerged as sacrilege, an act of betrayal, evidence hinting at insanity.
The Children’s Fire is a regenerative principle, a lodestar guiding the deliberations of leaders who are charged with the responsibility of governance and the long-term welfare of their people; the same meaning we ascribe to the concept of sustainability. It is a mindset, a design principle that I hope will one day find a home in our hearts, a location deep within the DNA of politics, religion, art, business, education, health, banking, cities. Everything in fact.
The Children’s Fire speaks to us about leadership and the tendency for leaders (chiefs) to forget their obligations and responsibilities to those whom they serve, and use the opportunity to feather their own nest. John Dalberg-Acton’s famous phrase ‘power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men’ comes to mind. It is an attempt to protect against this gross human failing.
The Children’s Fire burning at the centre of the circle of council chiefs also represents our relationship to the sun. Like the planets orbiting around the great fire, the sun, we acknowledge the star whose heat still pulses beneath our feet, in the heat of our bodies, in the fire of our imagination. Since for the native peoples of North America fire was the physical embodiment of spirit, the Children’s Fire represented sacredness at the centre of all that there is. Sacredness was understood to exist in everything that we might be tempted to consider as ordinary – stone, soil, shit, water, bird, plant, cloud, child, me, you….. Everything becomes seen and understood as it actually is; extraordinary. The Children’s Fire implies living in an animate world where everything is alive and everything has significance. An immanent world where gratitude and reverence become integral to everyday living.
The Children’s Fire is part of a spiritual wisdom tradition that did not rely on the concept of belief. In fact ancient Lakota dialects had no word for the concept of belief. The Children’s Fire simply mirrored back to the chiefs a spiritual truth that needed to be followed if the people were to be resilient and flourish over the long term. In this way the Children’s Fire doesn’t ask people to believe in anything, rather to simply acknowledge the insight and wisdom that it speaks of, and then apply the principle in action. It is very pragmatic.
The Children’s Fire invites us to be the best we can be. It is an invitation to a lifetime journey of deepening alignment with life. It sets us a challenge. It invites us to walk in beauty, participate generously, appreciate the inner journey as much as the outer, and it defines value in terms of what we give, not what we pretend to own.
The Children’s Fire is just common sense really.
The all new Children’s Fire programme will run at Findhorn 21-27 April 2018. Book your place here.
This article is featured in the forthcoming management and leadership book Not Doing by D’Souza & Renner (LID Press, 2018)
Watch The Children’s Fire talk here