You Will Be Miserable, And It Will Set You Free
My first year at Burning Man, 2017, I rode the 1000 miles from Denver with a virtual stranger, and was dependent upon the same stranger for my ride home. This meant I was absolutely not leaving Burning Man until he was, and he was staying the whole dang time. On my second night I lay in my tent, absolutely miserable both physically and emotionally, silently weeping because I could not leave. This was horrendous and I was stuck here for six more days and oh god oh god what have I gotten myself into??
The next day I went out into the desert again to look at art and make the best of my time here. Because I had no other choice. I’m glad I was unable to leave, and not only because despite the misery it was a fantastic and transformative experience. I’m glad because the misery itself was a fantastic and transformative experience.
There’s an old fiction trope of the pampered prince being thrown into the city or the wilderness and being shocked and unable to function in what everyone else considers just the baseline level of adversity. Outrage at being forced to clothe himself and get his own food. We laugh and sneer at him. By the end of the story the prince has found the hidden strength to survive and redeemed himself in our eyes by being resilient and doing something valuable for his new friends.
This story is about us. We live in material wealth and physical comfort that exceeds the dreams of our ancestor’s nobles. It’s devastating to lose our artifacts of power. The tools we’ve used to defy nature have made us insanely strong, and there was no way that wouldn’t cause some part of us to atrophy over time. A strong society can build palaces, but their princes will grow pampered and weak. A powered exoskeleton will let you throw cars around, but your muscles are going to whither away from disuse.
Sometimes you need to take off the power armor, or be thrown out of your palace, or strip away the comforts of insane technological cheat codes on reality, and be subjected to adversity. When our tools are taken away, we’re left to break upon the rocks of reality, unable to do anything to oppose it. Yet we do not die. Day after day we don’t die. In fact, we find ways to adapt, to absorb, to flow with the current rather than standing against it.
This is the muscle that weakened when we could place a steel fortress anywhere and ignore what was around it. Let go of the fortress, step outside it into the raw, raging world. Be forced to let go of the instinct to resist and reshape your surroundings. We have a second strength. We can learn instead to reshape ourselves. We become closer to our environment, more of its essence, as we take it into ourselves. We grow callouses in the places were it constantly wears and rubs, and learn to move in ways that complement it.
This was how our ancestors lived. Every one of them remade themselves to survive as part of the world that surrounded them. The people of the desert and the people of the mountains and the people of the forest were all distinctly different humans in fundamental ways. They weren’t simply Homo Sapiens in unadulterated purity. They were Sapiens remixed with desert to become that which thrives here, or Sapiens remixed with jungle to become what thrives there. Every group a species born of the earth that’s assimilated them.
The gift of that misery is the knowledge that you will not shatter when your purity as Homo Sapiens is violated. You are not brittle. You will survive, and you will emerge as something new and stronger in this environment.
Importantly, you can do this again and again. Later on in life, when you find yourself miserable and wanting to rage and scream and cry, you’ll remember this second night in the desert. You will be miserable again, and it will pass again, and you will remake yourself stronger. You are versatile. You are adaptable. You have that power within you.