The Power of Suffering in ‘The Flame and the Flood’

The Flame and the Flood illustrates the power of suffering to shape us and give us perspective.

Written by M. Joshua Cauller

Dandelions! I need dandelions. I dock and scour every nook of the island desperately. Finally, we discover the patch of dandelions in the last unexplored corner. I frantically try to brew some dandelion tea to cure what ails me, but when I reach for a jug of water, I see that it’s polluted. And I’m all out of filters. My pup and I disembark, taking our raft down the river to find somewhere wet and shady enough for cattails to grow (which I can fashion into a filter). We hit rapids just as I get a glimpse of the dock to the wilderness. My vision goes blurry just as I get close. Then everything goes dark.

“You died of a snake bite.”

"… there’s something communal about turning suffering into art. it makes us feel like we’re not alone."
The Flame in the Flood takes much of what I learned about the country growing up, and translates it into a game of survival. It reads like a laundry list of things I’ve since taken for granted: plantlife, crafting, hunting, and twangy music. Yet somehow it grabbed me in the same way that a great film, art piece, or musical arrangement makes me stop and pay attention. I think that’s because of the power of suffering to shape great art. Like I always heard it said in art school, “great suffering begets great art.” The Flame in the Flood gets that.

I spent my formative years surrounded by Amish crafts, corn, and unattended roadside stands (where you’re trusted to pay for whatever you take). I grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, completely surrounded by American spirituality—especially the Evangelical sort where beliefs are handed to you and told that they’re good. We never seemed to have any kind of lack. There was always food at our table. Yet in that upbringing, I was miserable.

Maybe that missing ingredient was suffering, or perhaps just a “lack” that spurred me on to creative desperation. Either way, I feel like I understand that longing to fight for survival, or why survival games are so popular now. The Flame in the Flood seems to get this longing for a keenly American tradition of suffering and survival.

The harmonica hums at full volume as I make my first departure. Aesop just handed me a new rucksack and we’re heading down the river wild again. Our first stop gets me trapped in a corner with a few wolves. I manage to shoo them off just before one takes a bite out of my calf. The laceration could get infected, but I don’t give it a chance: we stop by a bait shop where I fashion a sewing kit out of a fishing line and hook to close the wound. My stomach alerts me that we’re past suppertime, so I eat the last of the stack of dandelions in my pouch and we make port at the edge of the wilderness. I find a few saplings and strap them with some flint to make a spear trap for any predators that come my way. I set the trap close to the port in case something starts chasing me. After looting a cabin for scrap lumber, I hear a snort around the corner. As I pop my head out, the boar rushes straight for me. I knocks me on my butt with a broken bone, but I manage to limp back close enough to the trap. The boar dashes again and gets stuck right where I wanted him. I grab a splint (that I crafted earlier) and set the break. Then I clean off the trap, collecting raw meat and a boar hide. I salt the meat, making jerky and I quickly sew the boarhide into a new hat. I feel like an all-American badass.

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Embracing hardship means to carve a path to the other side—to have endured. It might make you feel isolated from those who haven’t gone through the same thing. But there’s something communal about turning suffering into art. it makes us feel like we’re not alone. It’s why musicians writing breakup songs, or why Academy Award winning films are often full of pain and loss.

As much as I think I want security and safety, my preference in media suggests I’d rather be struggling for survival. The Flame in the Flood gives me just enough guidelines to feel like I might know how to stay alive, suffer a few nights of grumbling stomachs and no sleep. It unearths the power of mundane things like dandelions, and cattails, and the creative potential of a simple sapling. It lets me get at what might be a desperate longing for suffering and survival, yet without all the mess of actually getting close to my own death.