Paul Addis was a few years older than me, and had been around Burning Man a lot longer. I bumped into him twice off-playa, made fun of him in print once, and know two long-time community members who at one point considered him a friend.
That was the extent of our connection – yet I find myself pushing his recent death before me wherever I go, a burden that does not belong to me but that I cannot lift alone.
Maybe this is because our community has lost several stars from its constellation this year, and while I didn’t know any of them, the sense of loss is cumulative, building up until those outside the funerals are in mourning too.
Or maybe it is because Paul, in his own troubled way, was trying to do exactly what we all are: he was trying to be an artist. He was trying to burn brightly. He was trying to act on the inspiration we all get from our common heritage in Burning Man and the Cacophony Society. The devil’s in the details, but from a thousand foot view he would be seen on the same path as all the rest of us.
I mean … we’re all crazy. Let us not forget that for most people in the world, the act of going out to the desert to build a giant man and burn him is itself far crazier than the decision to burn it on a Monday instead of a Saturday.
But I think what really troubles me is the way in which his leap reminds me of just how easy it is for any of us to fall through the cracks.
We like to think Burning Man can protect us. Instead, I fear that Paul Addis represents the limits of radical inclusion.
My fellow Burning Blogger Jon Mitchell has an awesome story about seeing a group of Temple Guardians calm and comfort a troubled and delusional man in the middle of the night. That was radical inclusion in its most physical, practical, manifestation. No questions were asked. Who was he? No one cared: didn’t matter. What had he done? Irrelevant. He needed help now, he needed community now, and he was getting it – freely offered and given.
You couldn’t ask for a better example of our commitment to one another, and our effort to be better to each other than the rest of the world is. We took care of him without reservation.
But … but … what happened to that guy the week after Burning Man? The month? The year?
We don’t know. I mean, of course we don’t know. Obviously. What’s Burning Man going to do – follow him around? Assign him a case worker? Perform house calls? That’s crazy. Laughable.
(Although … I now love the idea of putting on a lab coat, picking up a clip board, and dropping by the homes of burners I don’t know to say “Hi! I’m from Burning Man! We’re checking up on you. How are you feeling? Are things okay at home? Are you on your meds? Can I take your temperature?”)
Burning Man is occasionally accused of being a cult, and the best defense that we’re not is that: if you leave, nobody’s going to go looking for you.
But that sensible, obvious, boundary also represents a hard limit to radical inclusion. We open our arms to hug anyone who wants to Burn … but we won’t take care of you for long. We can’t. That love you feel when you’re told “Welcome Home” is being offered by people who likely will not remember your face in 15 minutes.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this. It means we’re sane and mentally hygienic. But it’s often not the story we tell ourselves – and that’s a problem.
We prefer to think of ourselves as a community whose ideal of radical inclusion and community propels us to care about individuals to a superhuman degree – and so many people come to Burning Man thinking that because we are a radically inclusive community they will finally find love and acceptance to last a lifetime. They will finally belong, whoever they are.
You’ve seen them. Hell, we’ve all been them at some point. It puts us on a hair trigger for signs of intimacy. I’ve had several people think I was connecting with them on a deeply personal level when I offered them what was, from my standpoint as a Volunteer Coordinator, nothing more than good customer service. If I were a concierge in a hotel doing the exact same things, I would have been lucky to get a tip. At Burning Man, that behavior identified me as a soul mate.
Yet you really don’t want to depend on a concierge to be your soul mate.
I was no different my first Burn … or my second one, until I figured it out. We’re all there hoping for magic, and for most of us … especially the 99% of us who lead at least somewhat stunted emotional lives … magic means love. Not necessarily romantic love – though sure – but love all the same.
But Burning Man doesn’t offer lasting, unconditional, love. It can’t. It can do no more than take you in as you are and let you experiment in its playground.
It’s a sad testament to the state of global culture that this act of basic humanity is radically inclusive. But it is. It’s also as far as we can go.
Some people, doing that, do find lasting love. They find friends to last a lifetime. But … here’s the thing … they’re the people who probably would have found it anyway. Most of us have transformative experiences at Burning Man that really do change our lives, but we don’t change our character all that much.
Changing your character is hard: Burning Man can open the door, but walking through it is a journey of a thousand miles – not a single step. That’s why, for the most part, people who have a lot of friends at Burning Man also have a lot of friends in the default world. People who tend to feel alone in crowds in the real world will generally feel alone in crowds at Burning Man. People who are shy will generally still be shy when they come to Burning Man. Burning Man is no less magic for it, but it’s true.
I often think that this is one reason why some people who are bitter about Burning Man are so very bitter about Burning Man: they feel like we made an implicit promise of love and acceptance through radical inclusion, and then they come to find that it’s still easier for the fun, pretty, extroverts to make friends.
We have a reputation as a place where that doesn’t happen. God help us. Many of us try our best, but … are we supposed to have found an answer to the human tragedy that love is unevenly distributed?
Burning Man can include you, and will – whoever you are – but it can’t make you friends. You have to make your own friends.
People who are deeply troubled when they come to Burning Man will likely still be deeply troubled when they leave.
Again – there’s nothing wrong with this. How else could it work? But the myth that Burning Man’s commitment to radical inclusion makes it the place where you will finely belong without even trying is out there, engraved on stone tablets. A lot of people go through some miserable moments when it doesn’t work out that way, and they ask themselves “What’s wrong with me?”
Most of them get over it. Maybe they even grow from the experience. Maybe it even changes their lives for the better. Burning Man really is an engine of possibility.
But “possibility” never guarantees salvation. Medicine administered improperly can hurt you – especially if it’s potent. Especially if you care. Especially if you’re out there in the middle of the desert, caring so deeply it hurts, wondering why you’re alone in the City of Radical Inclusion.
Does this have anything to do with Paul Addis? I have no idea. Quite possibly not. This is a riff inspired by the life of a man I barely met, and I don’t pretend to know what was in his head or his heart when he ended his life. But … however inappropriately … he now symbolizes for me the clear limit of radical inclusion. A reminder that Burning Man, as an entity, often symbolizes more than it could ever possibly deliver.
You are welcome here, whoever you are, but we can’t save you: you have to save yourself.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com