I went to Burning Man this year and got in touch with rage.
I consider myself a joyful person. I can be the life of the party. I put on a great show; I exist to entertain; I love to light up the dance floor.
And there’s a part of me that I never express, that I hide, that I keep behind a veil. And it’s mad as hell.
This was my fifth Burn and my first one in four years. I took a break because I didn’t believe in it anymore. Every year, I’d return to the default world renewed and raving about the ‘radical’ personal transformations I’d experienced on the playa. And every year, I’d settle into old behaviors and routines pretty much the moment I opened my emails or logged back into Facebook.
I’ve kept the same handwritten journal since my first Burn, and I reread it this year. It depressed me seeing that I’d written about the same emotional challenges and fears 11 years ago at that first Burn that I grapple with today. So little seemed to have shifted. I arrived on the playa this year (after waiting in line in an overcrowded pick-up truck with no A/C during a six-hour dust storm conjured from the bowels of Hell itself) unsure why I’d come back. I joked to my campmates that I needed Burning Man to ‘fix my whole life’ — and I wasn’t kidding, and I didn’t trust it would.
It was the last day of Burning Man, the day the festival would end, and I woke up groggy from an unsettling acid trip the day before. I’d felt uncomfortable throughout the trip, despite making everyone round me laugh most of the time. But anytime I wasn’t the center of attention, I’d imagined people didn’t like me. I’d felt agitated, waiting for the next opportunity to crack a joke. I didn’t want to admit how anxious I felt or make the group worried I was having a tough time — I kept it all inside and smiled through my unease. It was exhausting.
I hadn’t gotten whatever unnamed thing I’d expected Burning Man to provide. I’d had tons of fun — hosted a cabaret, danced my ass off at a Michael Jackson vs. Prince party, and grooved to two-hour joyous, live set by The California Honeydrops, but this was the first year nothing transformative had clicked — no wisdom or life hack or revelation. I was just dusty and tired and ready to give up on hoping for any discoveries. I got on my bike after breakfast and began roaming aimlessly, driven only by a raw need inside me. I wanted to believe again in synchronicity, in the power of the playa providing, in the chance for catharsis. I pedaled and prayed to some higher awareness, if one existed at all, to help me.
Other camps were readying for the burn and the exodus, collapsing their structures, and no one was offering anything in the form of workshops or therapeutic sessions on the Who/What/Where schedule. I rode over to three different Healing villages and found no impromptu healers available. I biked to the final potential camp — the HeeBeeGeeBee Healers — expecting nothing. Sure enough — the few healers who had made themselves available that day were all booked up on their sign-up forms.
Then an older man with deep-set eyes and weathered skin with a badge on his vest that read “Lunatic” walked up to me. Lunatic told me he was getting ready to leave, but he saw me looking for a sign-up slot, and he could tell I needed to talk to someone. He guided me into his tent right away and asked me why my eyes were sad. I shared with him everything I’d felt that Burn — the general anxiety, the craving of intimacy and fear of showing any vulnerability, the inability to forge new friendships, the frantic need to lighten up the room and make everyone like me at all times.
Lunatic nodded throughout my story but didn’t say much. He listened, and then he asked me, “When was the last time you expressed anger?”
I paused and tried to remember. I’ve shared bitterness, melancholy, distress, hopelessness, feeling like a loser and the like with my NYC therapist and the few friends I don’t think will judge me. But I couldn’t remember the last time I’d shown anger to anyone.
“What does anger look like to you?” Lunatic pressed. “If you were to describe your anger, like it was a character in a play, who would it be?”
“He’s a child,” I said. “He’s a little boy, sitting on a throne, throwing a tantrum, outraged because he doesn’t understand why people don’t like him. He doesn’t know why people were cruel to him, or bullied him, or made him feel humiliated.” I paused and then said, “He’s me — in fourth grade.”
I changed schools in fourth grade because I was bullied so much that I was crying every day during lunch. I was a weird kid, overeager and trusting to the point where a bunch of kids convinced me one week that ghosts existed in rocks. I collected rocks of all types and named each one until the bullies publicly humiliated me on the blacktop at recess, hoisting me upside down and screaming with laughter as rocks fell out of my pockets and as I begged them to stop. They would snicker in the halls that I was gay and a faggot long before I knew what those words meant. When I raised my hand to ask my fourth grade teacher what “faggot” meant in the middle of English class, she sent me to Detention for saying such a bad word out loud. I started to fake being sick several times a week to get out of school and run away to my mom’s office down the road. My mom allowed me to play sick and told me the other kids were harassing me because they were jealous. She told me that I was her perfect angel, and that God would reward me and punish those bullies when we all grew up.
This little boy Philip never stood up for himself or got his revenge. Instead, he learned to hide. In seventh grade, I figured out how to be funny. I learned how to turn others laughing at me into laughing with me, because I could own being the butt of the joke. I played the fool; I made myself seem clueless and clownish and above all — harmless. Never anything but a whimsical joyride. I was “Fun Phil,” and my strategy was to charm and impress my way through life. If I was feeling down or sad, I would sulk privately or bury it until I could take the story to my mother — who’d repeat her mantra that I was perfect and the rest of the world was misguided. Only on rare occasions would I share my woes with a friend — and only then from a place of quiet melancholy. I never showed anger. I never raised my voice. When I felt wronged, I would retaliate by talking shit behind someone’s back or passive aggressively dance around the subject to their face.
When I grew up and ‘God’ didn’t make everything work out perfectly in my career and relationships like my mom promised me, I began to get bitter. I began to stop believing that things would work out or make sense. Despite working hard, I felt like I wasn’t leading the life I wanted — or I wasn’t appreciating what I had. I restarted therapy, but instead of feeling my emotions, I locked myself into a firm boundary between complaining and moping. I would fail at times to take ownership for my failures and flaws to make myself look as good as possible to anyone paying attention. The more unhappy I became, the more I’d seek out pity and sympathy — hoping friends would comfort me and tell me (like Mom did) that everything was unfair.
In the middle of my session with Lunatic, I remembered that I wrote about this boy inside me at my third Burning Man. I had imagined the boy on the throne, and I had written this in my journal:
Kid there. You with the scepter and the bad ‘tude. Fired. You are welcome to rejoin the party and play — by a fair share. I want your discernment but not your bitter blame. I am not sorry. I am taking back the scepter. Call me when you’re over any tantrums, ok?
I love you. — Philip
“How did that work out, banishing him?” Lunatic asked.
“Not very well,” I said. “I guess I can’t just fire him or bury his anger.”
“So it didn’t work to get rid of him. What if you felt your anger, through him?” Lunatic asked. “Anger is a useful emotion. It’s transformative. If you allow this child in you to feel angry and you honor his anger by letting it have its moment, then this child will feel heard and loved by you.”
I lowered my head and tried to feel how angry this boy inside me was. I felt red hot in the pit of me, despite the cool breeze blowing through the shade of Lunatic’s tent.
“It’s important you do this, because if you don’t — you could be in a dangerous spot.” Lunatic continued. “Because this boy inside you can’t take revenge on anyone else. He can’t go back in time and tell those bullies to fuck off. He can’t right the past’s wrongs. You aren’t letting him express any anger in the present. So the only thing he can destroy, the only thing in his reach, is you. He can make you feel miserable and unworthy and bitter. He can taint the good things in your life and spoil your gratitude so that you feel undeserving and underserved by your dreams. He will eat you from the inside out until you become what happens to many people by age 40 — a cynic. That is the real danger; losing faith in the possibility that things can get better and that there is a meaning and purpose to your life.”
I could feel the cynic brewing inside me. I remembered I had drunkenly pleaded to a friend before I left New York: “I’m not a bitter person. When did I start to feel so negative about everything? When did I start weighing my successes against others’ every time I opened up social media? When did I start feeling jealous of their relationships and think I’ll just be alone forever? When did I stop feeling happiness for their successes…when did I start to see their wins as my failure to launch?”
Sitting in Lunatic’s tent, I looked at my adult bitterness through this child’s eyes, and I felt his humiliation at everyone who had treated me as a joke, or a loser, or an easy target, or untalented, or unfunny, or unsuccessful, or unworthy of collaboration or friendship. And I felt this boy’s rage. I felt his fury. I let myself get so, so angry. Angrier than I’ve ever been in my life. It was perverse; Lunatic seemed to get happier the angrier I got. We sat like this — him beaming and me fuming — for several minutes.
“The last thing you need to know, Lunatic said, when my body had relaxed again, “Is that pity doesn’t help you. No one likes pity; no one wants to feel sorry for you; and frankly many others have had far worse life experiences than you. But anger — anger is useful. You can write your anger, you can express your anger, you can create from your anger, you can sublimate it, use it and thereby release it.”
I thanked Lunatic too many times until he steered me back to my bike, and I rode to my camp in a daze. I felt released from an enormous burden, like the emotional rocks I’d been carrying since fourth grade had fallen out my pockets. I no longer felt I had to hide my feelings beneath a smile. For the rest of the Burn, whenever I felt uneasy, I just reminded myself, “You have a furious kid inside you, and he’s full of fucking rage!” And I would burst out laughing and immediately feel comfortable with whatever the moment was. I felt fine not filling silence with small talk or cracking constant jokes or craving attention. I knew why I was doing all these things — to cover up how pissed off a part of me was at the world.
And best of all — I felt wowed by the fact that the playa had offered me the lesson I needed. I had come away from Burning Man with a radical discovery about myself. And I’d received this game changer just when I needed it most. I believed again in the universe providing and that there was meaning and purpose to the path of my life. I had needed to get in such a rut to learn this lesson.
I can’t wait to become friends with my anger. To express myself when I feel like shit — not from a place of seeking pity but like a geyser letting out the pressure as it’s supposed to. I am thrilled to no longer need to fake a smile or play the lovable fool for the sake of needing attention. I love being salty and snarky little bitch. I spent the rest of Burning Man cracking sarcastic jokes and telling off anyone I felt like reading. Mixing a little vinegar in with the honey. I had the time of my life dipping my toes into dark whimsy. It didn’t diminish my joy; it only made it more honest and sincere when not used as a crutch.
I will be on my guard to not be consumed by anger or use it destructively or recklessly to hurt anyone. But I will be direct about my feelings; I will no longer be a pushover to my fear of confrontation; I will look anyone who fucks with me in the eyes and embrace the discomfort of speaking my mind. It’s not about being righteous or any of the one-sided, black and white views my mother taught me; it’s about honoring my anger and its expression as a valuable part of my humanity and dignity.
And by being in touch with my anger, I can wholeheartedly feel my joy, and my sadness, and all the other anthropomorphic characters from Pixar’s INSIDE OUT, and be at peace with the complicated, strong, human being who lives as himself, all sides out.
Plus, I bought a membership to a boxing gym in Williamsburg.