Since coming back from my first trip to Burning Man, I’ve been turning over some questions in my mind. Well, not some questions, just one question, or rather multiple angles on a single question, trying to get to the heart of the matter like an artist’s chisel biting through stone to find the sculpture within. The question I started with was, What do you do with the problem of Burning Man?
And what’s the problem of Burning Man? That you have to come back, is the facile answer. Re-entry into “default world” is a problem. You spend a week in the desert without a lot of structure or societal expectations, immersed in humanity with good will and open spirits. There is some kind of magic in the desert, there is every kind of magic in the desert. And then you have to return “home” and face a world with a lot of structure and without a lot of humanity. This is such a problem that a common reaction is to reverse the concept of home, so that a return to the desert every year results in a resounding call of “Welcome home!”
Home is where the heart is, so I can understand why people would call a place home if it’s where their hearts are most alive. But your heart is always with you – if it’s not, you’re not alive, and I mean this figuratively although it’s literally true – so if you’re not at home wherever you are, this is literally (and now I mean figuratively) a mortal problem.
I would restate the Problem of Burning Man as a problem of dust. In the desert, the dust is everywhere, it covers everything, seeps into every crevice, covers you, envelops you, surrounds you and blinds you. The dust is everywhere and it doesn’t matter. What matters is the experience you’re having, the openness of your heart and largeness of your spirit, the humanity around you and within you.
And in the real world, you don’t see the dust. But the humanity that you now know exists is completely buried under vast layers of societal structure, expectations, obligations, fears and neuroses. These are layers of dust that matter more than anything else, for they prevent you from reaching the things that truly should matter most of all. In the desert, the dust is everywhere, highly visible and yet it doesn’t matter, while in the real world, the dust is everywhere, invisible and seems like the only thing that does matter.
So the Problem of Burning Man is not that you have to go home, or that you have to figure out what’s worth calling “home,” but that wherever you go, the humanity that you discovered in the desert is actually there as well, but covered in dust that you can’t see and so can’t ignore.
What do you do with this Problem? Some people opt out of the life they were living, quit their jobs, leave their lovers, hit the road. Some devote their lives to digging through the dust, joining non-profits, humanitarian missions, trying to dig through the vast invisible desert to find the humanity underneath. Some descend into cynicism and escapism, hating the world they live in while waiting only for a return to the desert.
For me, I’ve enjoyed carving out this problem with my dull chisel and a few blows of a heavy hammer. I’ll probably continue to work on it, wielding increasingly sharper tools and refined motions. Once it’s carved into a delicate figurine, I’ll have to decide whether to toss it into a dark closet, or put it up on the shelf, or carry it around in my pocket, or swallow it whole and make it forever a part of me.