In my post on luck, I stressed the importance of openness. But openness invites vulnerability, so people are generally unwilling to be very open unless they first feel safe. This is part of what makes Burning Man one of the luckiest places on earth – the entire event is one of the safest places I’ve been. This is achieved entirely through the culture.
Firstly, with a few extremely narrow exceptions, nothing can be bought or sold at Burning Man. Everything is given away as a gift without obligation. This decommodification of everything removes the status of having things. Almost all the value at Burning Man is found in interaction with other people, and you can’t really steal that. Also, everyone is living in faux-poverty anyway, there isn’t anything valuable around to take! And even if you did take it, what would you do with it? Pile it up next to your tent?
Secondly, because it is such a harsh environment, people are always looking out for one another. No one has to worry overly much about going hungry or thirsty, because there will always be someone giving away food or water, or happy to share what they have. Passing around snacks is a common activity in lines. When someone’s bike jammed near my tent, I gave them all the lube they needed to get going again. I saw one lady having a bad skin reaction in a dust storm, her hands were getting very chapped. A fellow Burner gave her moderately-fancy gloves with lights in the fingers, to protect her skin. The lady protested, but the Burner said “Take them, you need them more than I do.” This sort of thing happens regularly. In the desert everyone helps each other constantly.
This leads to a feeling of safety. You know that no matter what should happen, there are people around you that have your well-being as a priority. The sense of safety allows you to talk to new people easily, and explore things without worry. It, paradoxically, leads to the rallying cry of “Safety Third!”, which is a bit of an exhortation to try things that may scare you for not being perfectly safe – such as jumping between the slabs in the Temple of Gravity. There is an understanding that even if you get hurt, the people around you will immediately come to your aid. It’s what makes people comfortable stripping off all their clothes and having a naked dance/shower party.
I regularly saw women walking alone in the dark of night without any worry. That’s the kind of place this is.
When my bike popped a tire, it was repaired for free in a jiffy. When I was hungry, I was given food.
This openness extends to the interpersonal. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I have a very hard time speaking with people I don’t yet know. All my life I’ve felt basically unwanted. Yet at Burning Man, when I showed up at a random fire-spinning event alone, the people next to me struck up a conversation. They made me feel welcome, we had a good talk, and later that evening we met up to dance. As a single dorky male, I’ve never in my life felt like people wanted me to approach them. Dancing in the desert, the pretty young thing from the fire-spinning was delighted to see me, and afterwards thanked me. I still can’t entirely believe it. I was valued just for being me. It was bizarre, and wonderful.
This care-for-others thing is super-charged at your home camp. I camped with a group of 30-40 people, two of whom I’d met for less than five hours previous to this, and the rest strangers. Yet everyone treated me incredibly warmly. The standard greeting to Burning Man virgins (possibly everyone?) is “Welcome Home.” It sounds weird at first, but quickly you understand it. Your camp WILL take care of you. They will show you around and take you places. They’ll sit and chat with you when you need to rest, and they’ll give you food or water if you need it.
Of course nothing is completely without obligation. I learned my first night out that one doesn’t simply show up at a bar and ask for food or alcohol. Well, one can ask for food or water if in need, of course. But in the normal course of events, one is expected to make the provider’s day a little better in thanks, and that is done by socializing with them. When you first reach the counter, you do not just slap down a cup or a plate. You chat first. Recount what new or exciting thing you saw today, or what you’re looking forward to, or what interests you in life. Did you recently take a trip to Russia? Lets talk about that! Are you working on a new song or story? Tell me! You’re a Burning Man virgin? How does it compare to what you were expecting? etc.
At Burning Man, no one is a part of an economic transfer process, simply there to facilitate the exchange of currency. Everyone is a person, a full human being, and the only way to acknowledge that and be present in the community is to treat them as a person rather than an economic unit. And that means creating a relationship, however fleeting. It means socializing with them.
A note – while this is beautiful and very fulfilling, it’s also inefficient. Imagine going to Starbucks and having to chat with your barista for four or five minutes each time you go. If there’s a line of four people in front of you, you’ll be there for twenty minutes before you even get to order. So… not workable if you have other things to do. While you’re in Burning Man, chat and art is why you are here, so it’s fine. Delightful, even. But for modern-day efficiency, dehumanization of human labor inputs seems necessary.
This also means there’s lines for most things at Burning Man. They aren’t too long, because there’s people giving away alcohol or other stuff EVERYWHERE. But they exist. Fortunately, the people standing next to you in line are just as interesting as the servers! Everywhere you go you’ll be striking up conversations with the people beside you in line. You’ll talk about gender, or their camp theme, or dozens of other things. You may share snacks or gifts. It will be a good time. This is not like the lines in the grocery store, or Disneyland, where people are silent and can’t wait to leave, and the waiting is awful and hateful. This is just another place to discover the coolness and intricacy of the human beings around you. Take advantage of it!
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