The Cruelest Hug of All

Free HugsI’m catching a ride out with a friend whose plans are less like clockwork and more like cats chasing a laser pointer.  So once we started talking about “when we’re going to leave” I started making some rounds, telling people “this might not actually be the last time I see you this year, but it also might be, so let’s make the formal goodbye now.”

I was at BMIR:  my home away from home on the playa.  I said goodbye to Kanizzle.  I said goodbye to Decibel, and to Ben, and to Mao, and even to that one girl who keeps sneaking up behind me and cupping my ear.  I don’t know what her deal is, but she’s definitely been part of my experience.  We all hugged it out in tender, sad, moments.  None of us have ever seen each other outside of Burning Man.

Then a guy I didn’t recognize looked up from a coach.  “Oh no!” he said.  “You’re LEAVING?”

I felt pretty guilty about not recognizing him, but I don’t actually have a great head for faces or names, so I know there are people who I should recognize at BMIR but don’t.  “Well, sort of,” I said.  “I might be back later, but I don’t know for sure, so I’m making sure I hit everybody …”

“C’mere,” he said.  He stood up and gave me a passionate embrace.  I hugged him back.  He was obviously so affected by whatever moments we had shared.

“Listen,” he said.  “Don’t ever forget that what you do is so, so, important.”

“I won’t.”

“Making this radio station run … a gift for every listener out there on the playa … it’s just such an amazing thing you do …”

I paused the hug.  “You … you don’t actually know what I do, do you.”

“Tell me,” he said.

I pulled away.  “You … have no idea who I am, do you.”

He thought about it.  “Well, no, but … I know you’re here at the radio station …”

My face fell.  I stepped back.  “OH MY GOD!  You just STOLE a goodbye hug!”

He stepped towards me.  Opened his arm.  “Tell me what you do.”

“WHAT?  NO!”  I took another step back.  “No!  I can’t believe you did that!  I was saying goodbye to people I actually care about, and you just jumped into the line!  Who DOES that?”

He took another step forward.  “I’m listening now.  I want to know you.”

“No!  Back off!  This is unacceptable!  You can’t just …  You took a hug you didn’t earn!”  I held my hand up in a “stop” gesture.  “I’m leaving now.”  I backed up slowly, still facing him.

He started following me out of the station.  “My ears are open!”

“No!  That’s not the point!  NO!  Stay!  That was an involuntary hug!  You are not part of my goodbye rounds, I do not consent to this intimacy!”

He stood in place, his hippy feeling desperately hurt as I backed out into the hot sun, holding my hand out to keep him at bay.

I made it 30 feet, worried he was going to jump-hug me the whole time, before he slinked back into the radio station and I escaped into Center Camp.

I can think of no better example of the clash of cultures and manners that sometimes occurs at Burning Man than that.

God I hope he was just screwing with me.

Caveat is the author (under a clever pseudonym) of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City,” which has nothing to do with Burning Man. 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

27 Comments on “The Cruelest Hug of All

  • reverend dr dj riz says:

    ‘you took a hug you didn’t earn..’
    so much for gifting.

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  • Caveat Magister says:

    C’mon, man – there’s no such thing as an involuntary gift.

    Accidental? Sure. Involuntary? Nuh uh.

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  • WolfeniiCharvet says:

    I can see both sides of this argument. If there is an attractive young woman and a drunken man wants to “gift” her with a full body hug, then she has the right to say “no”. Rejection is part of life.

    I actively choose to welcome certain kinds of energy into my personal space, and the gentleman in question may have had the same feelings.

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  • Kevan Lunney says:

    You bring up an interesting point. With so much free love, where are the boundaries? You definitly found yours. I can see how it could be confusing.
    It also sounds like you were feeling a bit off balance about the good byes already and this unknown hugger made you feel more vulnerable. Amygdala said, not safe, fear, jump back. Who IS this person?
    Intimacy is a big deal!

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  • Dpdrake says:

    Get over yourself

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  • Don juan says:

    You can only give what you have.
    maybe you where in need of hugs and you can not give what you dont have

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  • pink hug says:

    Someone that would do that was indeed needing a hug, i hope you never find yourself in a situation were you need a hug so desperately that you need to fake friendship with someone. And if you find yourself in that situation i hope you don’t find a person that instead of hugging back refuses and then spends his energy writing it down in a blog. Peace ;) Save your energy and time and hug back next time

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  • Cody says:

    Lol who gets mad over a hug at burning man? Are you retarded? I hugged a thousand people I didn’t know and felt so warm from all those amazing embraces. I have never heard of anybody getting mad like you did. Even in the comments, the stuff Kevan Lunney said about a girl not wanting a hug is WAY different than what actually happened. Who tries to take back a gifted hug at BM? You are selfish and possibly full of yourself…but since I don’t know you are you gonna try to give me back my words like you did with that hug? Lol nerd! And who cares who you are, burning man is a place for people who don’t care who or whom they are in the real world…It’s an escape plain and simple. Next time smile and don’t be such a douche

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  • Sometimes I just don’t know about people.

    You weren’t in Mecca when the dirty hippie rolled in the side door (ignoring the “closed” sign on the heavily barricaded front door) and jammed a hepatitis laden hand into the Korean pork and the kimchee and sat down with a plate shoveling into his face.

    Moments later Minx flew from somewhere in the subway station below first camp (or maybe just the bar) and tackled the hippie hard enough for his head to fly off. She then threw his desiccated corpse into the holding cell.

    Or maybe she just told him to stop eating our food and get the hell out.

    So yea, what the hell is wrong people? I meant just the minority who fuck it up for everyone else.

    It was a good burn though.

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  • Brittany says:

    I was waiting for this post to get better, and it didn’t. I thought I was reading a joke. A undeserved hug? Your hugs only reserved for people you care about? Open yourself up a bit maaaan.

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  • D Naked Dawn says:

    Wow!! Really? Honestly, what makes burning man and the gifting “including gifting of hugs” so special to me is the genuine need to give to strangers who are mutually enduring challenging circumstances in life and also the grueling environment BRC provides. The embrace towards mankind and the reaching out to strangers is amazing. Regardless of what we do or regardless of who we think we are. None of that matters. I hugged hundreds of people and each one was genuine with no pretentiousness. I did it naked too ewwww. Now thats a different subject. This man was simply appreciating a service you did here while at burning man. So often we do and do and do and never get noticed or acknowledged and are pissed because nobody notices. This mans crime was believing in and appreciating you. Appreciate that because tomorrow you may go unnoticed. A stolen hug? I think not. Trust me….he has no clue nor would I have a clue you feel the way you do. It makes me want to hug you. Stolen or not.

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  • Caveat Magister says:

    @D Naked Dawn

    The trouble is that he wasn’t appreciating a service I did here – I have nothing to do with the operation of the radio station. I just hang out there. He couldn’t possibly have believed in me and appreciated me, because he didn’t actually know who I am or what I do.

    Which is fine, as far as it goes. And if he had just said “Hey, can I have a hug too?” this might have gone differently. But that’s not how this happened.

    I’m big on reaching out to strangers. But I don’t mistake lying to them for any kind of intimacy. If you want real intimacy, you have to at least be honest, right?

    “I don’t know you but can I hug you?” is cool. This wasn’t that.

    That said, I wrote this up because I do think the whole thing – including my reaction – is funny. But part of that surely is the audacity of the hug. Right?

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  • Muhammad Moonbeam says:

    How depressing to read this and slowly realize comments about ‘stealing hugs’ weren’t going to be revealed as sarcasm. The fact that the author found this experience worth sharing and it was approved is even more depressing.

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  • bvb says:

    Hug kerfluffel. Moving along now.

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  • BostonJay says:

    I see the Authors point. At first I didn’t see what the big deal was, but she explained her point. This guy wasn’t be truthful, he was being in fact manipulative. Sure, maybe the easy thing is to give the guy who clearly wants (and maybe “needs”) a hug but easy isn’t always right. Maybe the next time the guy will say, “hey, I don’t know you but can I have a hug too?”.

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  • Don juan says:

    Stolen hug? To deny a hug in a “radical inclusion” community?
    Caveat Magister, seems you are full of self importance.

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  • Caveat Magister says:

    @Don Juan

    Look, I’m not saying this was any super big deal – I posted it because I thought it was funny.

    But let’s just be clear: you’re saying that when someone wants to hug me at Burning Man, my preferences and boundaries don’t count for anything? That not wanting to hug someone isn’t a legitimate choice?

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  • G says:

    @BostonJay, if you guessed the author’s gender wrong, would that change your inner story line in any way?

    @Caveat, it would seem that the possibility that the hugger had no significant prior experience with you had not popped up in your mind. Might you have been affected and reacted differently it had?

    When greeting, I offer hugs, I never demand them, and on rare occasion am refused. No big deal. It kind of trips me out to wrap my mind around the set of feelings described in this essay, but it makes total sense. Substitute the hug in this story for a sex act. Would those commenters above be less likely to admonish Caveat? Boundaries are boundaries, and no means no.

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  • Jackie says:

    I feel sad after reading this. You should embrace those who embrace you. May you think about this moment the very next time you are rejected and walked away from, badly.

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  • Doppelganger says:

    I am conflicted with this post. Mostly I find it sad that the embrace wasn’t simply returned. For someone to lie in order to receive physical contact – He must have been in need. The handling of it could have been better too. I would have embraced him again, then when I released – I would say, ” Your sneaky and lying isn’t nice. Have a happy burn you wonderfully sneaky creature …” Although – I am one of a kind.
    I do feel a little understanding for the author however since Burning Man is also about self expression. He/She expressed His/Her feeling and emotion towards her … situation.
    EHHH Whatever ..
    I can’t wait to go back home. I already miss the playa.

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  • Jason says:

    Caveat, you think this guy was *lying* to you?!? No, he was simply *mistaken*! He *believed* you were important to the station. He was sincere, but wrong, so what? For you to assume he’s a manipulative liar is unwarranted.

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  • psydfx says:

    Jeeez people he’s obviously joking. Sarcasm is lost here…. :P

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  • Wawu Ballabalu says:

    There are creepy hugs out there… I get this, hugs need to be consensual… this seems suspicious perhaps of an E hug. Ergo, I’m not into sloppy drunk hugs if I’m not sloppy drunk too, lol.

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  • Kienen says:

    I just can’t possibly disagree with the author more. Maybe it’s a joke that’s going over my head.

    I’ve been on both sides of this: someone you don’t know is going around the room hugging everyone, you just jump in line and give them one as well so you don’t accidentally snub them. Likewise, if you’re going around hugging everyone, you don’t leave just one guy out, that would be rude.

    Maybe the guy was a little over excited to hug a stranger, but this is Burning Man. We love hugging strangers. Maybe he just assumed you were a radio person and his emotion was for your (perceived) instrumentality in manifesting something that did truly touch him.

    I dunno. This is weird and my sarcasm meter is broken. Fair warning, BMIR kicks ass, and I have a long, uncomfortable hug without mercy in store for any of you that I can catch.

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  • BZ says:

    Everyone knows Caveat is the brains behind BMIR. Bobzilla and Kanizzle are just figureheads.

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  • Nicole says:

    I feel bad for this arrogant kid. Daddy issues.
    Hope you get help bud

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  • Willow says:

    I’m a little late on this argument, but I’ll add my two cents anyways. Hugs, as simple as they may sound, can, to some individuals, mean quite a bit. To this author, giving a person a physical display of affection was extremely important. He wouldn’t just give that to anybody, regardless of being at Burning Man, a Rainbow Gathering, in his work office or a dark alley. Just as many of the commentators are asking for him to respect their desire to show a stranger affection, we must also respect his desire to save that affection for the ones he actually wants to extend it to. Consent is sexy, even if, as small as it may be, it’s only a hug.

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