There’s a reason so many Burning Man friendships don’t work out anywhere else

Hit me up on Facebook. I'll send you a cat video.

Yep – it’s that time again.  Dammit.

I hate that time.

You’ve shaken the dust off, caught up on sleep, detoxed your system, dragged your ass to work, put the pieces of your life back together, and found a place to store the giant copper monkey head you swore you’d take good care of because it meant so much to that one guy who … as of the Core Burn … was your best friend in the whole world.

Now it’s time to admit it:   that that guy’s never going to actually come visit you.  And, worse, you’re probably never going to email him.

In fact, virtually every goddamn one of the people who you magically fell in love with at Burning Man and swore undying devotion to after you realized they were the missing piece of your soul probably can’t actually be bothered to keep in touch outside of Facebook.

And neither can you.

Because … you’d like to, but … you’re busy.  It’s your mom’s birthday.  Or something.

I’d been through summer camp syndrome before, but I wasn’t prepared for the first time I made soul mates at Burning Man who disappeared in the default world.   I mean, they were my new family!  This was where I belonged!   If what we’d been through together wasn’t friendship and love, what possibly could be?  What kind of person doesn’t follow-up after something like that?

The one-two punch of this existential crisis was the realization that I wasn’t trying very hard either.

I hated them;  I hated myself.  Then I got over it, and had lunch.

The unpalatable truth is that very few of the people I’ve met at Burning Man are actually a part of my life the other 51 weeks a year.  I’ve been profoundly intimate with them, but outside of the desert I can’t expect them to show up at my birthday party, let alone bail me out of jail.

The experiences of trust and love and comradeship we have in the desert don’t seem to translate well into the rest of our lives.

This isn’t only a Burning Man thing – I’m sure it also happened to people who followed the Dead, spent time in the army, or were trapped in a well together.  I doubt that the rescued Chilean miners hang out over the weekends reminiscing about how they used to pee in the same bucket.  Liminal experiences are, by definition, liminal, and all you get to take back from them are knowledge, wisdom, and the occasional magic copper monkey head.  That’s just the way it is.

But Burning Man pries open our psyches in a rare fashion:  to thrive in this environment you have to open yourself up to radical possibility.  That makes it easier to make friends, fall in love, feel connections, and share psychic space – not because the other people are so special but because you have discovered how to say “yes” more often and more deeply.  When you get back to the real world, where you are constantly saying “no,” it’s hard to keep that going.  Those beautiful intimacies disappear.

Your mileage will vary, but most burners I know suffer through this disappointment to some degree every year … or have made their peace with it and long ago stopped expecting anything more from the people who say “I love you” on the playa.  I don’t know which is more sad.

But we keep coming back, and I think that part of the reason it’s easy to feel isolated and betrayed by these intimacies-that-were-never-really-commitments is that we don’t have a label for them in English.

“Comrades” implies certain kinds of obligations;  “friends” implies others;  “lovers” still more.  But we have no word for what we most readily find at Burning Man:   intimacy without obligation.  Time-sensitive love.  Impermanent family.  A real and profound connection … and oh yes, it is real and profound … that floats away on the breeze.

If we could call people each other that … that … thing … whatever it is … going in, instead of “friends” or “boyfriend/girlfriend/lover” … it might make it easier to take when that’s exactly what it turns out to be.

“Ships passing in the night” is in the ballpark, but clumsy and powerless and too much of a cliché to satisfy.    A Buddhist teacher of mine in Sri Lanka used to say that “We are all Dharma Beings,” meaning impermanent.  “We constantly appear and disappear from each other’s lives.”  I kind of like that.

Munney, a Media Mecca team captain, suggested “Burner Buddies.”  It has a good ring.

Dharma Beings … Burner Buddies … I’d like it if a witty term caught on (suggestions, please?), but I guess what I’m saying is that it’s unfortunately easy to go into Black Rock City, which only exists for a week, and assume that the people you meet most intensely will be fixtures in your life.

It’s lovely if it’s true – and the burner weddings that happen off-playa prove that some people find a connection that lasts.  But perhaps the post-burn depression would be easier to manage for some of us if we went in understanding that these unusually powerful relationships are usually transient.  That you go to a liminal city to have a liminal experience, and in a way become someone new while you’re there.  And that you have deep, profound, meaningful experiences with people who are also someone different while they are there … and that everything but the feelings is going to vanish in the exodus.

And that’s okay.  Amazing, even.

It would be a stretch to say I’ve made a lot of friends at Burning Man, but I’ve got the best fucking Burner Buddies in the world.

And a giant copper monkey head.

And … maybe … over time, an enhanced capacity to say “Yes.”

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

POSTSCRIPT: 

For the record, I got the idea for this essay on the playa this year when I said to some people “There should be a word for the people we feel a profound, life-changing, connection to out here and then never keep up with.” 

The immediate reaction was “Oh God, yes!”

I even showed a draft of this post to a couple of people, basically asking “It’s not just me, right?”  And all of them said the issues expressed here spoke to them. 

Which is to say, I did wonder “is it just me?” and was told decisively “no.”

That said, reading AG and EggChairSteve’s responses below it becomes clear to me that what I was focusing on was a particular facet of friendships made at Burning Man, and not the whole picture.  But all of us are talking about an extreme reaction:  either we found lifelong friends who are there for us through thick and thin (” these friendships have lasted longer & burned brighter than any I’ve had.”;  “vast majority of my (default world) friends, companions, lovers I met through the burn”) or … we found a desert full of dharma beings.  Both are fairly unusual.

This suggests to me that there is something different about the potential for and kind of relationships to be found at Burning Man:  something worth exploring is happening here, and I don’t think we have a good handle on what it is yet.

But yes, I’ll cop to having overemphasized one of the polarities.

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat grew up wanting to be a Russian novelist, but the closest he ever came was getting personally insulted by the first democratically elected president of Poland. Now the volunteer coordinator for Burning Man's Media Team (itself a volunteer position), Caveat has been messing with Burners for the last five years, and has a hard time believing some of the stuff they've let him get away with. He is a publisher at Omnibucket.com, served as editor of Chicken John’s philosophical autobiography “The Book of the Is,” and archives his publications and personal blogs at www.TheWachsGallery.com.

56 thoughts on “There’s a reason so many Burning Man friendships don’t work out anywhere else

  • I have been thinking about this post quite a lot, and appreciate the meaningful comments people have posted.

    First, there’s the behavior that The Hun describes above – how much he likes falling into a deep conversation with a stranger on the playa for a period of minutes or hours, and then parting ways with no contact information exchanged. My first year on the playa I experienced this several times and I confess I found it to be one of the most difficult interpersonal challenges of the BM experience.

    I found myself kind of obsessing about people who had seemed like such kindred spirits, and who had simply disappeared into the dust without looking back. How could they? Were they not feeling it too? Was it something I said?

    With a little more experience I have come to understand that this is one of the signature behaviors on the playa, and that it offers a kind of magic, though it can still be vexing.

    In terms of sustaining relationships with those people with whom you DO exchange contact information, just a couple of quick comments. First, let’s not dis Facebook too offhandedly – it offers a real way to stay connected, and there are hidden depths there if you plumb them (instant messaging, sending each other videos, sharing of various kinds). Google+ offers live video connections, even. A private FB or G+ group for your camp or circle can offer real group cohesion across distance and time, and can deepen relationships.

    My experience with being Facebook friends with people I met on the playa is that through the trickle of posts and online interactions I discover that they also have other common interests, or perspectives, or history, or even friends – making for much richer interactions next time we talk or meet.

    But more than that, I would offer that if you make a real connection with someone, and want it to be sustained over time and distance, whether you make that connection at Burning Man or at a friend’s wedding or any other temporary gathering, it takes mutual effort and energy. Relationships take work. Sometimes we walk away and savor the memory, and sometimes we choose to put in the effort over Facebbok or through postcards or phone calls or plane tickets. Staying connected to someone is a gift you give them. And we’re expert gift-givers, right?

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  • Over the years I’ve become nearly an expert on transient relationships so this, to me, just reads as slightly naive. I think that you can form real connections with people at burns… certainly that kind of environment has deepened my connection with many people I already knew as well as bringing some new folks into my life… but any kind of transient experience will bring this kind of thing. It is rare to keep in touch with people you meet in any kind of transitional place… though the ones that you do connect with and do stick around, tend to stick.

    I think that it’s best to just understand that all relationships are as they’re supposed to be. A transforming connection can last a few hours or a few years… and there is nothing less or more about it. It serves you what you need, no more, no less.

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  • Having helped my camp for four years, burned now only twice, i may not have as full a perspective as some, but…

    My first burn, i connected with my “playa boyfriend”, a man who became my lover and with whom i connected so strongly it kinda scared me. a year and a half later, we’re friends on facebook but barely comment on each other’s lives – yet i know he spends hours chatting with mutual friends. he wasn’t on playa this year, but will be next.

    I felt embarrassed and nervous about seeing him on playa for Rites of Passage but he wasn’t able to come. i was relieved in a way when i learned he wouldn’t be there. i was also disappointed in myself for not having been more true to the feelings i had with him, that i had not made them a reason to stay connected with him, but instead let my life get in the way.

    When i see him next year, he’ll get a huge hug from me. the love i felt (feel) for him was real and he’ll always be my first Playa Boyfriend. it took a second burn to understand why it’s ok. i had to see the reconnection, the people coming out of the dust with huge smiles for those they haven’t seen in a year (or years), the big wet sloppy kisses, the laughter, the Welcome Home hugs.

    As a friend of mine wrote me about this article, “nowhere in the definition of the word ‘meaningful’ will you find the word ‘permanent’.”

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