This week, GQ published a beautifully written piece of trash about Burning Man. While the author, Wells Tower’s prose is remarkable, his understanding of his subject matter is elementary. Do you want to know the truth about Burning Man? Read on.
Problem 1: Self-Expression
From the beginning, Tower shows he doesn’t quite get it. He states:
We have joined the annual pilgrimage of many thousands who each year flee the square world for the Nevada desert to join what’s supposed to be humanity’s greatest countercultural folk festival/self-expression derby. Or it used to be, before people like my father and me started showing up.
What Tower fails to see is he’s mucking up Burning Man not because he’s failing to meet some sort of countercultural measuring stick, but because he’s showing up as a close-minded spectator. One of the ten Burning Man principles is radical inclusion, meaning everyone is welcome, including “staid East-coasters” like Tower and company. Radical inclusion does not mean misfits only. You don’t have to be a hippie or an outcast to go to Burning Man. All – including people who fit into society and follow cultural norms – are welcome.
However, because Tower misinterprets the meaning of the Burning Man principle of “radical self-expression,” he is correct in his assessment that he’s messing up the festival.
Tower talks about the morning he went for a Human Carcass Wash at a Polyamorous Camp:
My hope is for a simple shower. This thing is not that. Before the wash begins, we are broken into little cadres to receive instruction from the (also naked) administrators of the Carcass Wash. A very genial blond man with an air of ecclesiastical gentility and a somehow angelic blond pubic bush delivers the disappointing news that we are not here merely to be scrubbed by polyamorists and sent on our way. We will first wash others, dozens of them, before we are washed ourselves.
He goes on to describe just how uncomfortable he was with this situation. My problem with his complaint is he should’ve gotten the hell out of Dodge when he realized what was going to happen. No one was twisting his arm to stay at the Human Carcass Wash.
OK, yes, sometimes it’s healthy to push boundaries, even if it’s painful. When serious objections exist, though, it’s a matter of personal integrity to follow your own code of ethics. That is what self-expression is truly all about.
Burning Man is about learning to be comfortable with who you are, not who everyone else thinks you should be. It’s not about getting naked just because some other people are doing it. At Burning Man, you’re supposed to get over acting a certain way just because society expects you to. In a culture that teaches us to flout convention, Tower embraced what he believed to be the rules without listening to his own voice.
There is nothing wrong with staying completely clothed at Burning Man. In fact, it’s only a minority of people who get fully naked. Taking off your clothes to please other people is (quite obviously) not about the self, it’s about other people. If Tower had simply felt comfortable being exactly who he is, clothes and all, he would’ve more accurately embodied the self-expression principle.
Tower is certainly not the only one guilty of this mistake. In an environment where we’re encouraged to fully uncover and express who we are, so many of us copy the styles and attitudes of others. If we were truly living out the self-expression principle, I think there’d be as many fashions and opinions as there are burners. People can be just as judgmental on the playa as they are in the default world. All of these people are missing the point of self-expression and open-minded, countercultural acceptance.
I’ve dealt with the pressure to “express myself” at Burning Man. One day, I was wearing a cute little costume and body paint, but a lecherous old man taunted me to take it off.
“Don’t you want to contribute, to participate? You’re here to entertain,” he goaded.
“Are you crazy? Do you really think I’m going to take my clothes off for your entertainment? You’re the reason I’m keeping my clothes on,” I replied, as I walked away.
Herein lies a lesson for all men. Know who you are, and be comfortable with yourself. Know who your woman is, and allow her to feel comfortable with herself, as well. You will reach the level of physical intimacy you desire when you are able to worship the goddess by meeting her where she is.
When you respect her instead of ogling or pressuring her, she’s going to be a hell of a lot more likely to want to take off her clothes for you. When you get to know her mind and spirit first, she’ll be much more likely to open her body to you, as well. If you’re not doing these things, you may “get lucky” and have a fleeting moment of passion with a woman. But if you call off the sex hunt and instead honor the fullness and richness of a woman, she will be more likely to want you. You won’t need luck.
Of course, most matches are not meant to be. But overall, your chances are better if you operate this way.
Problem 2: Expectations
When going to Black Rock City, what you expect is what you get. Tower expected to be embarrassed by his own nudity and that of his father’s. He expected to feel shame, and that’s what he felt. His campmate, James Dean, expected Burning Man to be just a big “sexed up party.” When Dean looked at a schedule of events, he chose to skip the many spiritual, literary, scientific and offbeat choices, and he went for the sex-oriented experiences instead.
Any city of 50,000 has a sex store or an adult movie theater, but it also has museums and restaurants and parks. Where you choose to go when you’re in the city doesn’t mean that’s all it has to offer. Since Tower, his dad and Dean gravitated towards sexual events, the article reflects a heavy focus on sex.
There’s no denying Burning Man is an overtly sexual environment. However, the event presents such a broad range of experiences and activities to choose from that it seems unfair for sex to get all the attention.
Ultimately, what you choose to see in the festival – and in life, in general – creates the reality you experience.
Problem 3: Radical Inclusion
Tower violates the Burning Man principle of radical inclusion by judging every person at the festival, including – and most importantly – himself.
In Tower’s words:
I thought this was going to be a half-assed and risible demon-sticks-and-reefer-and-Himalayan-salts dipshit convention, but afoot is a pageant of trippy ingenuity and gorgeousness that must have taken a hell of a lot of work and money and gymnasium hours to bring off and that can only be diminished by the gawking presence of guys like us.
Where did Tower go wrong with this assessment? He didn’t. He’s right; he probably did screw things up by gawking. He could’ve easily fixed that problem by getting over himself and contributing something, anything. Good conversation would’ve been enough.
All he needed to do was stop feeling like a gawking spectator, worrying about what other people were thinking of him and judging those people. If he could’ve just realized he was an insider and not an outsider, he wouldn’t have felt so out of place. If you don’t believe it, compare Tower’s experience with his father’s. His dad felt completely comfortable in his own skin and had a great time everywhere he went. Tower, on the other hand, felt like he didn’t belong.
Certainly, Tower’s not alone in his failure to uphold this principle. Most of us – including myself- have faltered.
I felt intense anxiety during my first Burning Man experience, culture shock from entering an alien paradise. Everyone seemed so confident and free, and they all seemed to know exactly where they were going and what they were doing. By the third day, I relaxed. I finally realized playa people were friendly and no one really cared what I was up to. From that point on, I had a blast.
Problem 4: Regrets
When he visited the Temple, Tower devolved into a self-pitying, shame-faced creature.
I do not do volunteer work. I am a poor carpenter. I give very little money to charity. My hair is thinning. I am a miserly Captain Bligh of an RV skipper, having forbidden the men from deucing, or even showering, in the RV out of fear of depleting the battery and water reserves. I am bad about returning e-mails. I love my father. My father is dying and will leave no worthy successor. My life is at least half over. Out of cowardice masquerading as prudence, I have sired no children and nourished no lifelong commitment to a member of the opposite sex. My dog’s halitosis is noxious and incurable.
The ivory-billed woodpecker is almost certainly extinct. Super-PACs are destroying American democracy. The Milky Way is whorling into a huge black hole. They eat dolphins in Japan. I’m getting muffin tops.
Well, Tower, what are you going to do about it? The Temple is not about wallowing in your own life’s failures; the Temple is not great in order to make you feel small. Rather, the intense focus, creativity and insane amount of work that went into building the Temple should serve to inspire, awe, and introduce you to your individual and collective human potentials.
It is there to help us confront our deepest emotions and realities, which perhaps Tower succeeded in doing. When we meet our fears, frailties and failures, though, what do we do about them? Do we push them down and keep on living in the same way? Or do we rise up and make some major changes in our lives so we never have to confront these same issues again?
Do we become the people we want to be in the present moment so we aren’t filled with regrets in the future? I think that’s what the Temple is about. It’s about remembering the people we’ve lost and reminding us to strengthen connections we have with those who are still with us. The Temple is temporary. It’s burned to the ground at the end of the week, reminding us that time is fleeting. The only time we have to become the people we want to be is right now.
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