I went to Burning Man last week.
Overwhelmingly, an excellent experience. Hopefully to be repeated annually ad infinitum.
But not entirely blissful. There were extended periods of challenge and struggle, mostly concerned with the creation of identity in a place in which everything was given and nothing was needed.
What does it mean to be a “good person” in a world where there is no real lack or long-term struggle? How do we build an identity for ourselves in a place so temporary, so removed from the challenges of the world?
I struggled here because I have come to define myself in terms of what I contribute: energy and skills in the service of building organizations, generating knowledge, and improving processes. In a place like Black Rock City, none of that is relevant, none of that is available. In Black Rock City, I was a human among humans, and my past accomplishments were invisible.
This was surprisingly difficult to handle.
At first, I felt frustrated because I felt that people would not be able to value me correctly. I worried that I would be undervalued in that environment because those things from which I generally derive value and identity — good works — were unavailable.
Then I realized that I was a fool.
For an unspoken length of time, I had relied on an identity built on good works to insulate myself from those around me. I had built up a narrative in my head that my contributions to those around me gave me a pass on having to continually build and deepen human connections. I had allowed myself to cocoon myself inside my past and present accomplishments, to hold myself apart from others and to justify it on the grounds that I was providing objective value to the world around me, and thus excused.
In the desert, standing figuratively naked in the sun, I had none of this protection. I was exposed to others purely as I was, and was valued solely by the depth of my humanity and the quality of my presence. And in that nakedness, my fears were revealed. The fear of inadequacy that compelled me to build a barrier between myself and others: a cocoon of stories and assumptions that shielded me and protected me from vague and undefined threats and dangers.
In Black Rock City, a place without history, a place without need, a person is valued to the extent that they are able to delve into themselves and bring out portions of their souls as offerings, on to the other. A “good person” is one who is able to give — give of themselves, of their humanity — someone who has transcended the default desire to take and to accumulate and to conserve.
A “good person” is one who has overcome their own fears of others and is able to stand or sit proudly in the sun, vulnerable in their nakedness, and therefore give permission to others to do the same. And in this moment, the light that is often locked away inside of us is set free, to shine out from our eyes and onto the infinite others. And a “good person” is not someone who has done this once, and is thus excused, but rather someone who recognizes that the past and the future are fictions, and that there is only the moment, and the continual renewal of humanity in each and every moment.
In a world without material, it is the immaterial that defines us.
To define yourself by your works, your wealth, your reputation is to build a cocoon of ego around yourself, and to remove yourself from time and from the world around you. It separates you, isolates you, alienates you. You speak but you do not truly speak. You are seen but you are not truly seen. You touch but you do not truly touch. Your every interaction is mediated but your shell, and contact becomes impossible. And you begin to wither.
It is when you delve within yourself and offer up the best of what is found — not once, but again and again in every moment — that you will find yourself embraced, and you will bloom.
And now, a poet:
Then said a rich man, “Speak to us of Giving.”
And he answered:
You give but little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.
For what are your possessions but things you keep and guard for fear you may need them tomorrow?
And tomorrow, what shall tomorrow bring to the over prudent dog burying bones in the trackless sand as he follows the pilgrims to the holy city?
And what is fear of need but need itself?
Is not dread of thirst when your well is full, thirst that is unquenchable?
There are those who give little of the much which they have – and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwholesome.
And there are those who have little and give it all.
These are the believers in life and the bounty of life, and their coffer is never empty.
There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward.
And there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism.
And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue;
They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.
Through the hands of such as these God speaks, and from behind their eyes He smiles upon the earth.
It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked, through understanding;
And to the open-handed the search for one who shall receive is joy greater than giving
And is there aught you would withhold?
All you have shall some day be given;
Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors’.
You often say, “I would give, but only to the deserving.”
The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture.
They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish.
Surely he who is worthy to receive his days and his nights is worthy of all else from you.
And he who has deserved to drink from the ocean of life deserves to fill his cup from your little stream.
And what desert greater shall there be than that which lies in the courage and the confidence, nay the charity, of receiving?
And who are you that men should rend their bosom and unveil their pride, that you may see their worth naked and their pride unabashed?
See first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving.
For in truth it is life that gives unto life – while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.
And you receivers – and you are all receivers – assume no weight of gratitude, lest you lay a yoke upon yourself and upon him who gives.
Rather rise together with the giver on his gifts as on wings;
For to be over mindful of your debt, is to doubt his generosity who has the free-hearted earth for mother, and God for father.