Rituals of Stress, Gratitude for Flush Toilets, and Roman Philosophy

Part of the blog series for the 2017 theme, Radical Ritual.

When was the last time you were grateful for running water? For your refrigerator? For any number of modern conveniences? If you’ve been to Burning Man, you’re probably familiar with the joy of that first porcelain flush toilet after days of porta-potties. The smile on your face as you wash your hands with real soap and water from a tap. Food that’s not Spaghetti-Os from a dusty can warmed on your car’s dashboard.

Even though the novelty value of indoor plumbing soon wears off again, being without it for a while is a valuable experience to re-set our brains. How many people go through their entire lives taking it for granted that there’s always flush toilets and running water and refrigerators? The ritual of going to the desert once a year and choosing physical hardship on purpose in a relatively low-stakes environment, can remind us to be grateful.

The Roman philosopher Seneca, in his Moral Letters to Lucilius (Letter 18: On Festivals and Fasting), wrote of the ideas of purposeful hardship bringing gratitude for the gifts in life that you do have, of seeing your situation with fresh eyes after ‘practice’ stress.

“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence…Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.”

Stress is an interesting thing. Recent research shows that stress isn’t necessarily harmful to us, but can be positive or negative depending on our perspective. There’s even a reduced association between stress and mortality when you provide help to others! Imagine that, helping your neighbor tie down their shade structure during a crazy dust storm just might help you live longer.

Cloud haven (Photo by andrew wegst)

Fire-mediated serotiny in plants is a process by which seeds are only released in response to fire. (Serotiny, generally, means the seed is released in response to some kind of stressor rather than just spontaneously.) Giant Sequoia trees, for example, can only germinate from seed in response to a forest fire. Does Burning Man provide the fire, the low-stakes necessary stress, spur life change? Burning Man is an intense place full of intention, expectation, experimentation. Are the odds higher there that you’ll find the particular fire that unlocks that little seed you’re carrying around inside? It’s a seductive idea, and if you ask a roomful of Burners I imagine you’ll hear some stories that start with “Burning Man changed my life!


As the time to head to the desert grows closer, I invite you to practice gratitude for what you have.

For what you’re choosing to go without to get dusty with 68,000 of your new friends.

For what you’ll find there.

For what you’ll give.

Top photo: Dust Storm over Crude Awakening (Photo by Ales aka Dust To Ashes)

About the author: Brody Scotland

Brody Scotland is a native Californian and recovering shy person who enjoys hugs and snacks. Brody first attended Burning Man in 2004, found out that she doesn't actually know how to “go to Burning Man,” and started volunteering in 2005. Her mission in life is to increase the amount of happiness in the world, and she would like someone to teach her how to carve a wooden bear with a chainsaw. These two things are not necessarily related.

4 Comments on “Rituals of Stress, Gratitude for Flush Toilets, and Roman Philosophy

  • Nai`a NEWLIGHT says:

    Mmm, hmmm [nodding]!

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  • mi-ek says:

    “Fire-mediated serotiny…” – that is so apt.
    Thanks for all of this, though.

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  • Bucoda says:

    Great article. I couldn’t agree more. I go camping in all four seasons (backpack tent camping). There’s just something about snowshoeing a couple miles to a frozen lake, pitching a tent, and creating your own temporary residence in nature. Of course, true friends and the proper gear make it all the better. Some of our best, and most memorable trips, have been in the worst conditions. I enjoy being tested by the environment. If I can party with mother nature in 0 degrees or 100 degrees, she’ll show me respect as well. Real camping, I feel it makes you appreciate nature more than civilization (but there’s nothing like a hot shower after 4 days in below freezing).

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  • Condo Ghost says:

    From around 4-years of age my memories are of the two weeks each year with oil lamps, calor gas burner, outhouse elsan and the single cold water tap down bottom of the field. In later years home in Thailand the power outages three, four, five times a day. The water supplied just two hours a day. It brings home the reality check and appreciation of what is what.

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