How do you know when you’re grown up?
The question may strike you as trivial, but let it sit for a moment. There are clear answers to it in some parts of the world, but the part from which I hail is quite vague on this point.
All the rights of passage in my life so far have been either dully underwhelming (my Bar Mitzvah? my driver’s license? my 18th birthday?), or they’ve been sudden, shocking, and rushed (graduation, first apartment, income taxes). None left me with a sense of having transformed in any believable way. When I have felt initiated, it has typically been into something unwelcome. (Oh, boy. Now I’m a taxpayer.)
America doesn’t really have formal initiations. We have prescribed achievements, hoops to jump through, but they don’t come with any kind of clarity or assurance. Our institutions offer us degrees or licenses or certificates, but it’s still up to us to figure out for ourselves what good they are.
When I think of my ideal, romanticized rite of passage I wish I’d had, I wish for two things: some kind of shared experience, in which my community recognizes the occasion together, and some set of values or principles that become mine to live by afterward, so I know what to do.
Whether I imagine some solitary wilderness trial, or a purging, cleansing ritual, or some kind of quest, or some transmission from the elders, whatever exotic, nostalgic rite comes to mind, I want this communal recognition that something BIG has happened, and I want a way to understand what it means.
You don’t get that when you get your driver’s license.
But when you’ve been in traffic since sundown, and you’ve turned off the paved roads, and you first hear that crazy milieu of intertwining beats bumping from different cars, and then the horizon gets lighter, and you’re moving again, and the dust is kicking up, and then you’re there, and they check your tickets, and you jump out of your car with the engine still running and you grab that hammer and wail on that bell and shout “I’m hoooome!!!”…
Well, at the very least, you know you’re on to something.
We may be past the point where it’s no longer cool to talk about Burning Man as a tribal gathering or a religious pilgrimage or some kind of New Spirituality. Cool or uncool, I still do it, but I won’t bore you with that here.
I just want to consider this year’s truly awesome theme, Rites of Passage, and see Burning Man through the lens of something momentous.
Burner life has a profound time cycle. We count down the days until tickets go on sale, until we finish work or school or keeping up the house, until we leave, until the gates open, until the man burns. We don’t just go to Burning Man; we pass through it.
We all know what this means to us, how much it costs in money, time, and effort. But we know why we go through it. We all have our own reasons. Some of them are big and grand, some of them are private, just for us. But we also have these shared principles that give us a common purpose.
These are the things we bring back to the default world, in our hibernation from Burning Man, until we’re ready to pass through it all over again.