In every culture, in every corner of the world, there is something that can be relied on to bring people together: a fire.
In the backyard or the backcountry, the sight of a roaring fire draws us in, its pull almost magnetic. There we gather with friends, family, and sometimes, strangers. We are enticed to stay a while and as the hypnotic flame dances, conversations open. Stories, laughter—and sometimes even tears—flow, and we walk away feeling more deeply connected to the things that matter. Why does this happen? What is it about fire that affects us so viscerally? As it turns out, our affinity for fire is inherited—and somewhat inherent.
We aren’t that far removed from the time when fire could mean the difference between life and death. People gathered around them to stay warm, to lengthen the day, to cook, and to dissuade potential predators. For millennia, fire was vital to survival; we grew to understand this innately. But there’s more at play than that: fire was also a conduit to community. It was a social center. And, strikingly, it was by the fire that we learned to tell stories.
Our ancestors’ daytime conversations centered around topics of practicality—money, trade, land, conflicts—but around the fire, people relaxed, they connected, and their imaginations took flight. We know now that watching a flame reduces our blood pressure and calms us. For our forbears, these physiological effects freed their minds to transcend the mundane and enter the realm of the existential. As they shared stories they connected emotionally, building trust, empathy, and rapport. Their mellowed state heightened tolerance, allowing ideas to be more freely exchanged. Around the fire, neighbors became a community.
Despite technology, and perhaps somewhat due to it, we aren’t all that different today. We spend most of our time focused on matters of work, economy, property, and logistics. We keep our heads down and our guards up. But when we are invited to gather around the fire, something inside of us shifts. We step outside of the walls we’ve made ourselves comfortable within. As we smell the smolder of the wood, watch the balletic inferno, observe the changing night sky, tune in to nature’s orchestrations, and feel the night air settle on our skin, we feel different. Receptive. Opened. Changed. We get calmer. We feel a greater sense of wellbeing. We find ourselves more willing to listen, to share, and to connect. As with our ancestors before us, the bonds of relationships are forged and transformed around the fire.