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When a Fire Is More Than a Fire

Posted by Jakob Gowell on June 15, 2020

fireMuch has been written on the Evoke blog about bow-drill fires—one of the three pillars of Evoke's program—and for good reason. Part metaphor, part diagnostic tool, part rite of passage, they already possess depth of purpose. I wish, however, to dig deeper and offer one more perspective on their potential as a therapeutic intervention, stemming from my ongoing exploration of Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a branch of psychology that explores human motivation, development, and wellness through the lens of basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Used with care, I believe friction-firemaking can support all three. Here's how.

The Need for Competence

“In SDT, competence refers to our basic need to feel...able to operate effectively within [our] important life contexts. Competence is, however, readily thwarted. It wanes in contexts in which challenges are too difficult, negative feedback is pervasive, or feelings of mastery and effectiveness are diminished or undermined by interpersonal factors such as a person-focused criticism and social comparisons.”*

Making bow-drill fires isn't simple, obvious, or easy. In fact, their difficulty is the first kind of competence support: the possibility of optimal challenge. While the whole might be overwhelming, because the process can easily be broken down into steps (harvesting materials, processing materials, making the ember, blowing a nest into flames, feeding the nest with kindling), staff members can adjust to meet students where they're at: lending a spindle, offering to assist in a tandem fire. The range of tasks—which come from the diversity of moving pieces—means our support has a good chance to keep the challenge optimal. We can also make it harder by, say, dumping a liter of water on spindle and fireboard.

A second path to optimal challenge comes from students themselves. I have a different perspective than this Evoke blog that says, "One piece was not more important than the other." All the pieces are important, yet differently for different people. One can trade pressure for speed; some amount of preparation can be skipped with enough strength while the opposite is also true: a student with less arm strength can succeed through more preparation and tighter technique. The message for students: you can succeed by playing to your strengths.

Friction fires also support needs for competence through what SDT calls Task-Inherent Feedback: spin the spindle with enough speed and pressure and you'll get smoke—less and you'll still get heat, obvious to the eye or the hand. Flipping a spindle off your bowstring indicates excessive tightness or inadequate grip—spindle slippage the opposite. These incremental markers of success and needed improvement do not rely on someone else's subjective judgment. Smoke, heat, and fire are not the inscrutable B- or D+ at the top of an English paper.

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The Need for Belonging

“Relatedness concerns feeling socially connected. People feel relatedness most typically when they feel cared for by others. Yet relatedness is also about belonging and feeling significant among others. Thus equally important to relatedness is experiencing oneself as giving or contributing to others.”

For many of Evoke's students, their first introduction to the group will come in the form of a Fire Phase Ceremony where other group members gift them the pieces of a bow-drill set. It is also common for staff to facilitate an opportunity soon after for the group as a whole to practice bow-drilling. I think this is because this activity, more than many others in the field, is collaborative. Though each student's skill is independent, there is always a communal delight whenever a student makes their first fire. While the skills must be learned, they must also be taught—and that necessity is one of the contexts in which relationships in the field form and deepen. There is celebration, as I said, but also commiseration, a chance to check in about how you're doing (especially after some scraped knuckles). When the goal is to make the fire upon which we will cook our meal, there can be shared purpose.

Beyond group culture, bow-drill fires impact one-on-one relationships. Frequently a new student's mentor will take on a primary role in teaching that new student the basics. That coaching will best serve the student when it's grounded in curiosity of which path to success might be most relevant in this case, for this student. This asks of mentors and staff an ongoing familiarity with the course of someone else's development, the kind of sensitivity that shapes a culture toward kindness, patience, and understanding.

Separate from the growth of students' capacity, there is also a special place for those staff members who themselves struggle (I have known a few). They role-model striving in the face of challenge and provide an opportunity for group members who have themselves climbed some rungs in the ladder of mastery to teach, meeting the need not only to receive care, but to give it.

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The Need for Autonomy

“[One] of the basic needs specified within SDT is autonomy, or the need to self-regulate one’s experiences and actions. Autonomy is a form of functioning associated with feeling volitional, congruent, and integrated…The hallmark of autonomy is…that one’s behaviors are self-endorsed, or congruent with one’s authentic interests and values.”

The first way friction fires can satisfy the need for autonomy requires restraint—as staff watch group members practice, staff may have insight to offer about what might be done differently. That moment is an opportunity to step back and ask if that advice is welcome: an occasion for a group member be in touch with what they want. Should that result in a, "no," staff members can help meet autonomy needs by respecting it.

Second, for those group members who are skeptical about bow-drill fires' usefulness, staff members can offer meaningful rationales. These explanations are invitations for students to endorse the activity's values as consistent with their own. So long as staff members can stay on the side of informing—not convincing—many students will come away with enhanced motivation, coming from a place of empowerment.

Whatever those rationales, however, they will not resonate with all students. Invitations, if they are not ultimatums in disguise, may be declined. And yet, many clients may reject the value of bow-drilling from a place of oppositional defiance, as much a product of psychological control—and not autonomy—as unthinking compliance. Its contrast, reflective defiance, comes from connection with one's self, with behaviors stemming from well-integrated values. When a student refuses, we can honor that defiance and respond with curiosity and an intention to understand.

Some Last Thoughts

None of the above is guaranteed—friction fires can be as much an occasion for need thwarting as need support: a staff too quick to intervene, the danger of one-upmanship, manipulative pressure to participate. As with all aspects of life in the field, we have agency in shaping the experience for better or worse. My hope is that when we show up with awareness of and intention to support these needs, we will be a more powerful invitation into healing and integration. This is true for the hours in the week spent busting fires and all the more true for life outside those narrow hours.


*The definitions for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are taken from Richard Ryan and Edward Deci’s 2017 book Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness.

Jakob is a former Senior Field Instructor, now with a Master's of Arts in Teaching, and an interest in applying SDT to educational and mental health settings. See Edward Deci's Why We Do What We Do for an accessible general overview of SDT. More technical resources are openly available at the Center for Self-Determination Theory.

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