It’s time to admit the truth: I suck at Radical Self-Reliance. It’s really bad.
I went to my first Regional in 2003. I first went to Black Rock City in 2006. I have had all the time, support, training, and encouragement any person could reasonably need to get this right. But despite all this support, and so much other success – it’s finally time to call it. I fail self-reliance 101.
You want to know how bad it is?
- Except for the year when I shared an RV, I’ve needed someone to help me put up my tent. Every time. And not “got a helping hand,” I mean needed.
- At about 25% of my Burns I have shown up at BMIR and crashed on their couch from heat exhaustion or lack of sleep and had to have friends nurse me through it. (This year, on Sunday, a Burning Man staffer was so concerned at how out-of-it I looked on a BMIR couch that he later took me aside to ask: “you’ve got a place to stay, right? Someplace to sleep?”)
- A friend and co-volunteer was so concerned that I wouldn’t get this tent thing right that he actually brought a tent for me for three years. A really good one. Which I accidentally destroyed while trying to break it down in the night.
- After all this time, I still get lost trying to leave Black Rock City. Where is the damn exit again?
- Not to keep emphasizing the tent thing, but I think it makes the point pretty well that I finally got one of those expensive “put your tent up in 2 minutes” idiot proof kind of things, and I still need other people to come in and help me zip up the floor.
- I have forgotten to bring a flashlight.
It’s not nearly this bad with the other principles. In fact, I’m pretty good at some of them. My ability to form and work within communities has gotten leaps and bounds better through my years of involvement with Burning Man, as has my capacity to give meaningful gifts to others.
But from a Burning Man standpoint, I am not a self-reliant person. At all. Despite 10 years of practice, I still fail at basic tasks of survival and self-care. I rely on others in a way that is completely out of step with a vital principle. And despite continuing to try (“I’ll buy a simpler tent! I’ll stop fooling around with a propane stove and just eat canned food!”) it’s not getting better.
My very accommodating friends try to fudge the issue. “You contribute!” they say. “People like having you around!” Which is great – very flattering – but come on, that’s pretty obviously not the same thing. There’s nothing wrong with being liked and making a contribution – making a contribution is, in fact, something covered in various ways by other principles. But honestly now, we’re talking about Radical Self-Reliance here, and while it can be interpreted in various ways, it can’t be stretched quite that far.
By the same token, we don’t need to be fanatical about this: on a practical level, there are a whole lot of people who can’t be self-reliant in a literal sense out in a harsh environment. This shit gets harder as you get older; this shit can be extremely difficult for the disabled. Some of them still manage to pull it off, because they’re awesome while I’m just incompetent, but nobody’s going to propose a litmus test about how much gear you can load or what kind of tent you can set up.
But the fact that other people have this issue to varying degrees only makes it more worth asking: what does it mean if somebody just can’t manage a principle? Not just “at this moment” but “consistently over time?”
One thing we can do is to expand the context of the principle, which is kind of what my friends were trying to do when they said “you’re okay, you make a contribution.” What they are emphasizing at that point is not Radical Self-Reliance of the individual, but of the group: not “I” can be self-reliant, but “we” can be self-reliant, and just because you have the camping skills of a one-handed toddler with poor depth perception and a chronic cough, doesn’t mean that you’re not contributing to our ability to take agency and be autonomous together.
There’s something to this. Actually there’s a lot to this: As Burning Man has gone from being a frontier to a culture, and now a high culture, its communities have grown both larger and more complex, able to take on bigger tasks and allow for members to develop specializations in order to better support the whole.
This is happening at every level, and well it should: people learning how to band together for big and ambitious projects without losing their souls or surrendering all their autonomy is one of the fundamental challenges of our time. If we truly want to be relevant to the world and our lives in it, we have to learn how to do that.
So there is a degree to which this expanded view of Radical Self-Reliance, from the individual to the community, makes sense and is legitimate. Worthy of further consideration and exploration.
But … but … even so … that doesn’t let me off the hook. Because even if we accept the legitimacy of self-reliance as a community process, there is still tremendous value to individuals learning to do things for themselves. Not because it’s better for the community – it may very well not be if we’re talking about a complex organization – but because the more we develop the capacity to fend for ourselves the more we practice our capacity to be better than we were before. Someone who learns to weld may never become a professional welder, but they can use that skill – and that experience learning to do something that they couldn’t before – to become more confident in their capacity to solve problems, rather than waiting for somebody else to fix things for them. Radical Self-Reliance is ultimately not about who pitches the damn tent, but who has discovered their capacity to tap into their own capacities to problem solve instead of needing somebody else to do things for them.
As the text of Radical Self-Reliance specifies: “Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.” Self-Reliance is about being able to fend for yourself, as an individual or as a community, but it’s also about pushing yourself to discover what you are capable of, rather than assuming an attitude of dependency.
All of which suggests, to me, that I haven’t really failed at Radical Self-Reliance so long as I am continuing – with no bullshit – to try. That the continued effort means as much as the successful doing (or at least close enough, more often than not). So long as I’m not treating my community like a plug-n-play camp – so long as I don’t assume that my “contributions” (whatever they are) have earned me the right not to try – then I haven’t yet failed in the big picture however much I might fail in this particular moment.
And it does seem to me that in my continued bumbling, Three Stooges, effort to do better next year (I like to think I’m Moe, but deep down it’s pretty obvious I’m Curley), that good things have emerged. I have, if nothing else, become better at admitting I need help and asking for it. Which sometimes is a small thing, and sometimes is an absolutely crucial skill.
And I realized, this year, as I was lending an ear to a virgin Burner with anxiety issues tell me about his struggle to cope with extreme heat and dust storms and both a sense of loneliness and a fear of meeting people, that my own utter inadequacies have better prepared me to say, in a way that is both sincere and believable to someone struggling to get through all this, that it will be okay. That we look out for each other, and that however daunting the struggle seems at this moment, we really can bumble through it, maybe looking stupid but far happier for the trying. And you too will be able to contribute.
I don’t think I could have done that, at least not in a helpful way, if I hadn’t been struggling myself for these 10 years. It’s not the same thing as Radical Self-Reliance, but it’s still a good thing to be able to do, and it developed not because I was succeeding at anything but because I was trying.
Cover Photo by Mark Mennie
This is the second in Caveat’s series of reflections on 10 years of this Burning Man shit. Read the whole series here.