Mourning the limits of Radical Inclusion

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)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

16 Comments on “Mourning the limits of Radical Inclusion

  • Jon Mitchell says:

    Damn, Caveat. You laid it wide open. I’m amazed. I’m gonna have to read that over again a couple times to make sure I’m internalizing it properly. That love and the need for it is the center of all my Burning Man experiences, positive and negative. Non-Burning Man experiences, too. I act out of that all the time. If Burning Man is no different from the default world in this regard, does that mean it’s *not* a new and transcendent way to relate to one another? Or does it merely mean that this is an essential part of human experience?

    (If anybody wants to read the story about the crazy visionary and the Temple Guardians that Caveat mentioned, you can find it here: )

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  • Helga says:

    Thank you for this sharing H.

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  • Brody says:

    Damn, Caveat, indeed. I love having chewed this conversation over with you a few days ago, and to see the seeds of it so thoroughly churned through your brain and spit out into a blog. I wasn’t expecting the turn at the end towards “no matter where you go, there you are” but it makes so much sense. I will be passing this along to people who I feel are newbies and getting their expectations up that Burning Man will somehow make everything shiny and different.

    I labored under that assumption, and was wildly disappointed, my first two years at Burning Man. Dark teatimes of the soul.

    Thanks as always for your perspective.

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  • John says:

    Thanks, Caveat.

    Paul’s passing felt senseless….as it always is for me when another’s motivations jolt my reality in this way.

    I didn’t know Paul, only the wild stories told around the playa. And truth be told, a part of me lit up when hearing about his folly on that Saturday night.

    Peace, Brother.

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  • bunny-glam says:

    the burning man has a lot of nerve posting ANYTHING about addis. it was the borg that inflated the bill for the rebuild INTENTIONALLY to get addis locked up in real world prison for as long as possible. crimson “i want the first shot” rose saw to that.

    so addis gets 2 years of misery plus a massive debt to repay once he got out. gee, do you think that contributed in any way to his depression? kinda? FFFFFUUUUU

    the borg is complicit in addis’s death!

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  • Bruno says:

    I agree with most of what you have written here Caveat, except for one point. We have a choice to be involved in radical inclusion in the place we stand. The point here is that it is a choice. At Burning Man, it is safe to build this ideal, much like a political rally on a college campus. But if one really believes in this principle, they will carry it on their shoulders into their true home communities. Part of the work I do is providing clean syringe exchange for heroin and methamphetamine addicted individuals, most of them homeless and most of them with a wide arrange of health disparities and mental health disorders. All this with the hope of building trust and empowering them to be the most healthy versions of themselves they can be. Part and parcel of that work is also helping build medical homes for those with adverse medical conditions that need the most immediate of human needs… a safe place to live. All of us, every single one, has a choice to make radical inclusion a very real part of our lives both in and outside of Burning Man. Whether it is pulling out a dollar and having a conversation with the homeless woman you pass in the Tenderloin or walking on and pretending not to hear or care. The thing about the world outside of BM is that no one is keeping score and you have to trust that it’s the right thing to do. The reward will find you, it may not be a free waffle or some trinket you hang on your altar. It’s often much more subtle and. For me, that’s enough.

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  • Burner6 says:

    Just remember the BMOR pushed to have Paul put in jail.

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  • Wrath says:

    Just remember Paul set an occupied building on fire.

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  • Tuya says:

    Fire at Burning Man = bad

    This is not your father’s Burning Man.

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  • sad news, thanks for the thoughtful read Caveat. RIP Paul, i hope you found peace brother. shine on you crazy diamond.

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  • magnum says:

    bunny glam

    I was locked up for stupid shit too. I paid restitution as well. Was I depressed? Hell yes. You havent felt like shit til you hear a cell door slam shut on your first night.

    I had a felony on my jacket, so finding work was tough. But I didnt give up. I started my own business. I had to, no one would hire me. That was 25 years ago, and I havent looked back.

    You wanna play, you gotta be willing to pay. I knew the risk and so did he. Whats the difference between lighting the man early or torching someones camp? Where do you draw the line between prank and reckless endangerment? Without any regard for others safety, he decided to light the man, for whatever selfish reason. What if the man was not rebuilt? He would have deprived many people the enjoyment of seeing the man burn.

    He deserved every minute of the time he served, and every dollar he had to repay.

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  • bunny-glam says:

    “Where do you draw the line between prank and reckless endangerment?”

    where that line is drawn is the difference between burners of today, and burners of the past (not including borg members and their veteran sycophants).

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  • reidflys says:

    I think if you’ve ever attended burning man than your always a part of our
    extended family. Whether your alive or dead.
    RIP Paul

    sometimes things need to burn and later is simply not an option

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  • tonic says:

    What a sad tale what happened to Addis. I don’t blame the BMORG in any way for their actions in this. He took an action that potentially impacted the lives of people in and around the Man and the whole burn simply for the sake of some whimsy and paid a heavy price for it. Rejected by his community and operating on sick premises, he ultimately fell into the black hole of self-rejection and finally into self-destruction.

    In some ways, the burn itself is kind of like a drug trip. You go and are overwhelmed with the color, the joy, the fun, the amazing intensity of the experience. Then every subsequent trip is an attempt to get that same feeling. It’s a wonderful lesson in living. My life begins now at home with the people around me in my community, not out on some dusty lake bed for a week of outrageous strangeness. Caveat nails it. I will be the person on the playa that I am home and that I live every day. Best to work on that reality rather than try to escape it on the playa.

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  • BARK says:

    Is that what we are trying to do out there on that dusty lake bed? Escape the reality we live every day instead of working on it? I hope not and think not but I am no expert.
    But I’ve gotten off the subject…
    Reidflys is right. I’m with Reidflys.
    This Paul Addis story has led to some very interesting conversations between myself and fellow burners about the burner philosophy if there is a such thing.
    I loved this piece. Kudos to Caveat.

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  • Joshua says:

    What if the man was not rebuilt? He would have deprived many people the enjoyment of seeing the man burn.

    I, for one, think that would have been awesome. Personally, I think the rebuilding of the man was a travesty, and was a testament to how far from what I think of as Burning Man’s ideals the event currently is. The point of the Man is to burn. Once he has burned, you can’t just wave your magic ($$$) wand and un-burn him. Re-building the man was a testament to how the pageant of the Man Burn has been elevated above the ideals that said burn is supposed to express.

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