This may be out of left field, but that’s where I live: If Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-easy laugh) had gone to Burning Man every year, would he still have been self-destructive enough to send damaging photos of himself to women he only knew online?
The answer is: probably, yes. But I ask because I frequently hear people talk about Burning Man as though it were exactly this kind of sanity check. You’ve heard it too:
“Burning Man is the one place where I can really feel like myself!”
“I go to Burning Man to let my freak flag fly, and that gets me through the rest of the year!”
“Where did this tattoo come from? How far down does it … what’s Camp Thunder Ink, and am I really its mayor?”
The notion that Burning Man is a kind of therapeutic spa for creative spirits – the place we go to be gifted chicken soup for the soul – is even implied in our official language. It’s different from the “default world”; coming and going from Burner events is “decompressing” and “recompressing.” There’s a deep notion that coming to Burning Man is the equivalent of getting psychological work done, and this makes you better able to cope with the cruelties of a world where people don’t wear fuzzy boots before Labor Day.
If this is true … and I know at least three DJs who swear it is … then it ought to show up not just in the things we *do* in the default world (the activism, the saving the environment, the being the change we want to see – like Gandhi with glow sticks), but in the things we *don’t do* in the default world. “Decompressing” ought to save us from the kind of pressure that pushes us to do immensely stupid self-destructive things.
Like sending lewd pictures of yourself to women you’ve met online when you’re a married congressman, an act that is self-evidently self-destructive if you know anything about either Twitter or FOX News.
The default world is increasingly a place that pushes self-destructive mind-sets, and nobody gets a stronger dose of that Kool-Aid than politicians. They live in a glass bubble 24/7. They have to be the living embodiment of American morality, no matter how hypocritical. They can never just blow off steam because they’re never off camera (they can never be sure) and the footage never goes away. That’s why their inevitable coping mechanisms – everybody has coping mechanisms – are inevitably so self-destructive. They have so much more bullshit to destroy.
Between YouTube, Facebook, FourSquare, and the legions of cell-phone cameras recording anything that moves, this is becoming the fishbowl of bullshit we all live in. Le Congressman, c’est moi.
(Everything sounds better in French. If you’d heard Marie Antoinette say “Let them eat cake!” in the original French, you would have been convinced. You’d also be dead now. Stop haunting me! I swear it wasn’t my family that purchased the haunted shoe factory during the Reign of Terror!)
If the popular idea that Burning Man is the psychic equivalent of an enema is right, then it ought to save us from such self-destructive coping mechanisms. Our ability to be naked in the desert for a week should reduce the urge to take a gun to work down to safe levels.
If true, this could be an important therapeutic breakthrough for the modern world: we would do well to create more opportunities for people to escape the default world, not for fun but for mental health. The idea should be investigated.
I don’t believe it though. It gets something about the Burning Man experience fundamentally wrong. I think if Congressman Weiner (D-insert joke) were a 10 year Burner, he still would have done exactly what he did … except that he would have been cross-dressing too.
In the first place, I know enough Burners to not be convinced that we are less self-destructive than anybody else. You do too, if you’re honest with yourself. Sure, many of us are amazing people – but I think the ratio of fuck-ups to savants is pretty squarely in the middle of the Bell Curve.
The notion that Burning Man is some kind of modern Dionysian mystery ritual isn’t wrong, but it misses the point that actual Dionysian mystery rituals were pretty bloody affairs. People got hurt, sometimes killed. Confronting the divine is as likely to be a brutal process as it is joyous one: we dare not look at the burning bush, or forget that Kali wears a necklace of skulls. Wander out into the playa at night and you won’t just find beautiful bodies dancing in a ring of fire: you’ll find lonely souls, lost and confused, wandering through the desert as they crawl through an existential crisis. In those long dark nights, they’re much less happy than they would have been staying home to catch Simpsons re-runs.
That’s because the psychological effect of Burning Man isn’t to solve our issues automatically, as though the Man were Jesus touching lepers, it is to *bring them up.* Carl Jung said that those who don’t confront their demons within will confront them without: Burning Man is a process whereby both happen at once. That’s an opportunity, but it’s also a crisis. What we do with our issues when they’re staring us in the face is never “automatically” healing.
I wish someone had told me about this before my first Burn. I try to tell virgin Burners this whenever I can. I wish we were a little less upbeat about the party and a little more honest about the fact that we love Burning Man because it isn’t benign.
Disneyland is the happiest place on earth. The therapist’s office is where you go to resolve issues. Burning Man is something else entirely. After 25 years, we still rely on easy clichés when we talk about it. That’s a testimony to its extraordinary nature, but it doesn’t help anybody out in the desert. Or back at home.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact Caveat@BurningMan.com.