Whether you're a young Boy Scout or a contestant on "Survivor," sooner or later you're going to have to learn how to make a fire.
You've got to figure out any chance for fire relies on the availability of a source of heat, fuel and an atmosphere that can support the process of burning, namely oxygen. Fire, of course, isn't good or bad. It can be used to keep us warm or prepare our food, or it might be used to light our way.
It also can destroy what we value, such as our homes or businesses. It can burn us if we're not careful with it. And as with forest fires, it's capable of consuming everything -- good, bad or indifferent -- in its way.
It's always good to know to start a fire, but it's every bit as important that someone tends to it, to keep it going at a level everyone benefiting from its warmth can enjoy. Failure to tend it carefully can either let it go out or, dangerously, to let it rage out of control.
As we do every four years, Americans will try to figure out over the next two months who will be in charge of tending the proverbial fire of our country.
In recent days the two campaigns have intensified their efforts to get inside the heads of voters with messages about what the next four years might look like. Will it be Donald Trump's America or Joe Biden's America?
"We must not become a country at war with ourselves," Biden said. "But that is the America that President Trump wants us to be, the America he believes we are. ... All of us are less safe because Donald Trump can't do the job of the American president."
Trump in recent days said Biden was "against God" and was "no longer worthy of the Black Vote."
An overarching theme in the campaigns for president is this: Who will keep Americans safer over the next four years? In other words, who's can tend the fire without letting it get out of control?
The president has made his own strong case for the fact he likes to fan the flames. Trump appears most comfortable driving people into distinctly identifiable camps. They're either winners or losers. They're either people he likes and gets along with (such as North Korea's Kim Jong-Un) or people he detests and has no respect for (such as the late Arizona Sen. John McCain).
Trump suggests, though, that Biden won't just tend the fire; he'll let anarchists be in charge of it.
The Nov. 3 election for president is certainly important, but I'm unconvinced the person in the Oval Office determines whether our nation is divided or not. What we're seeing reflects divisions that exist today and will continue to exist regardless of who is elected.
But it does matter what sort of tone or example the president sets, and Donald Trump has spent three-plus years content to fan the flames that made 2020 the most contentious year I've witnessed in the United States (I wasn't very political in 1968).
Still, he's not the cause of our national divisions. He's just a president who doesn't mind exploiting them to his own purpose. Most presidents have tried to some degree to promote unity, within the limits of their world view.
Donald Trump's lack of nuance in policy, relationships and problem-solving is, in my view, a handicap in a president. His need to boil so much down to good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, friend vs. foe isn't a long-term strategy for the best hopes of the nation. It creates a great deal of unnecessary friction that can start more fires than any of us want or need.