It’s made of people, Charlie Brown!
I was watching the Bourbon Street webcam on Mardi Gras night, and the screen was filled with people walking back and forth on the street, ignoring each other. They seemed to be walking around and looking- for the party, for entertainment, for SOMETHING.
This reminded me of my first year or two at Burning Man, and how I just didn’t GET IT. I’d wander around looking for I-didn’t-know-what, trying to figure out what it was that made people have such a good time there. I felt isolated, I felt silly that I wasn’t getting it. It didn’t help that I was extraordinarily shy.
I finally came to realize something that felt incredibly simple, like I was stupid for not realizing it sooner. Burning Man (and by extension, all parties or participatory events) is made of people. By people, for people, and if you’re not making an effort to interact with other people you’re probably not going to enjoy it.
Those people walking up and down Bourbon Street, looking for something to entertain themselves? They could BE that something if they’d only interact with others somehow. It’s up to us to interact. It’s the difference between wandering an event & feeling incredibly isolated in a sea of people, and having a blast. I think we’re so used to spectating, being passively entertained, that a lot of the art of engaging with strangers is being lost. Which means a loss of connection, which leads to that feeling of ‘loneliest in a crowd’.
You know why everyone is lonely? Because they’re ignoring each other. They’re seeing the crowd as one entity, rather than comprised of individual people (and therefore, individual opportunities to interact).
When I started Greeting at Burning Man (for those of you not familiar, Greeters are people stationed right inside the event entrance who provide hugs, information and an optional bell-ringing celebration for Newbies to the event…but mainly HUGS!) I finally had a purpose, an excuse to interact with people. This was super helpful to me, as a shy person. Having a role to play – and the freedom to express myself within that role – meant that I had a reason to talk to HUNDREDS of people over a 4 hour Greeter shift. (And get a LOT of hugs). It was intoxicating. I finally got it.
It feels so strange to even write about this, like it’s kindergarten-level stuff. “Events are made of people.” No shit, Sherlock, you know? But I went to Burning Man for a year or two, wondering why I wasn’t having fun and why I was feeling so isolated, before it occurred to me that I had to TALK TO PEOPLE. People made the art. People were hanging out in their camps. People were running events. People were standing around and doing stuff and playing games and making grilled cheese sandwiches. Everyone has a story. Everyone has something to learn from. Burning Man is not just a vast nebulous event, it’s ~50,000 individual people Doing Things. And they want people to come play, too.
Wandering around expecting to be entertained, to have someone come to me and engage, to have the event somehow reach out and affect me…a recipe for a lonely time. It’s up to me to dive in. It’s up to me to say hi, to wander over, to offer a hug, to play with the art, to participate in the events. No one is going to do it for me.
No one’s going to do it for you, either.