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All The News That's Fit To Burn : 2005 Summer Newsletter

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

by Larry Harvey

We make hundreds of decisions every day. Some of these are passive or habitual, others we may feel we have to make, and many of these choices may not even rise to consciousness. But thoughtful people know that each of these decisions has a history and a set of consequences. What we are and what we do combine in life like fruit and seed. Back in what Burners call the default world we frequently loose sight of this. Yesterday's actions carelessly sown spring up around us. They take the form consequences that appear to thrive and grow quite independently of what we do. We find ourselves encompassed by a thicket. We say that we'd do this, that we'd be that: we would pursue our happiness, if it were not for circumstance. We yearn for liberty.

Many people come to Burning Man in search of liberty. Then they reconstruct the very limitations they have sought to leave at home. Back home, of course, the consequence of moral choice blends in with every other kind of scenery. But scenery shifts at Burning Man, and sometimes, too, the middle ground where we deposit our excuses disappears. Within a world created by intention, we are sometimes forced to face the painful truth about ourselves. Although it's little talked about, such agonizing confrontations are as meaningful as pleasure. Consider, for example, the story of Dickey. Dickey first arrived in Black Rock City in 2004. Shy and slow to make new friends, he felt afflicted. Everyone around him was caught up in celebration, but misery (when it's depressive) doesn't care for company. He felt as if he were encased inside an isolation booth. Stranded and alone, he found himself unable to communicate.

It might have ended there, but Dickey has decided he'll return to Burning Man. He feels that he has something to contribute to our city. Somewhere on the playa at an undisclosed location he will occupy an artwork called the Dickey Box. Elegantly fashioned out of wood and plexiglass, the spartan frame of this small habitat will furnish everything required for survival: a modest mansard roof and parachute for shade, a fan and air circulation system, sanitation facilities, sufficient space to stretch out for sleep, and, most importantly, four utterly transparent walls. Dickey plans to live inside this box for the entire term of the event. His box will be equipped with a deposit chute for giving and receiving gifts, and it will furnish him with the ability to actively communicate with passersby. It's safe to say he'll interact with hundreds, if not thousands, of his fellow citizens.

Dickey has inverted his original experience. He will achieve what every artist yearns to do. He will expressively externalize his sense of inner being. This action is, of course, precisely the reverse of passive circumstance. Dickey's project radically embodies self-expression. It's radical because it reaches deep inside him. It reconstructs identity from inside out. It's radical because it reaches out to others and invites participation. Dickey's box will touch the lives of many people he has yet to know. It also dramatizes an essential difference that distinguishes the exercise of freedom from its cousin, liberty. Liberty can be bestowed on us, as when a parent tells a child to go out and play. It means that we can lead our lives unhindered by restrictions. Freedom, on the other hand, must be achieved. It means we have no choice except to make a choice, that by so doing we create our lives. Through liberty we shed restraint, but freedom, in its fullest sense, transforms the world; it changes what we are. Dickey's liberty at Burning Man will certainly be limited. And yet, in giving of himself and reaching out to others, Dickey will be free.

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Newcomers to Burning Man sometimes treat our city only as a playground, one long recess from responsibility, an arena for the pursuit of pleasure. But Burning Man is not the summer season at Fort Lauderdale. It's fun to flout convention. Overcoming inhibition can initiate adventures. It is a joy to know that one may face the day dressed as a duck. And yet, to see our city solely as a scene of spectacle, as a diversion, is to fail to grasp an even greater opportunity. The Black Rock Desert is a challenging environment, but the community of Burning Man creates an equally strenuous moral environment. It asks participants to recreate the world, themselves, and one another. Radical means going to extremes: a journey in, a journey out, a vast enlargement of identity. Our ethos, as a way of life, confronts us with the challenge to be truly free: to be and do in such a way that we embrace a new kind of responsibility that makes our lives more real.

Stooping down in order to retrieve a cigarette butt from the desert floor might not appear to be a liberating act — especially if it is someone else's cigarette butt. But giving and receiving soulful gifts, many of them imparted by strangers, has a way of making people feel that they belong to Black Rock City as participants, as members of a culture that we share. Pack it in and Pack it out and Leave No Trace are slogans. But veteran participants internalize these values as a form of radical responsibility. They are self-expressive, self-reliant, self-policing: self-aware. They create art and respect the art of others. They volunteer as greeters, Lamplighters, Rangers, recyclers, and theme campers. The leave their campsites as they found them: completely bare, without a single lasting trace that they were there. They freely do these things, few of which are typically considered fun, not because of rules and regulations that deprive them of their liberties. They act this way because of who they are.

In fact, the central lesson freedom teaches us can also be applied, in one essential way, to veteran participants. It has become a common pastime in some circles, almost a convention, to complain about the newbies. They gawk and act like tourists and do not seem to participate, it's said. Oldbies sometimes feel that such incongruous behaviors are a blight on the event. Were it not for newbies or for irritating music, were it not for traffic waits at Exodus or inconvenient crowds — were it not, in other words, for circumstances that they can't control — they could perfect their liberty and thus be free. They forget that if they listened to the radio they would receive reports about the traffic flow. They forget that in a world so vast and various as Black Rock City, one can usually escape whatever might annoy one. But, most importantly, they manage to forget the lesson Dickey learned. If they would only cross the street, open their hearts, and share with a newcomer, a stranger, what Burning Man has meant to them, they could turn liberty into freedom.