In the summer of 2015 I had the profoundly life-changing experience of participating in Burning Man, a weeklong, transformative cultural event set in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. Burning Man is best characterized by its wonderfully welcoming community, awe-inspiring art liberated from commodifkation, and untamed celebration of our gift of self-expression.
It was my first "burn" and I was a bit apprehensive about immersing myself in an experience so different from my social conditioning over the first thirty years of my life. I felt I needed a jolt of something to help get me out of the rut I was in at the time.
A Need for Healing and Community
I was raised in a devout evangelical Christian home and spent most of my teenage years as a skeptical but committed Christian. By the age of twenty, after a period of intense study and contemplation made more urgent by the death of my grandfather, I had declared myself an agnostic and limited my spiritual practice to meditation devoid of any supernatural narrative. A backpacking trip to the religious sites of Israel and the West Bank, including a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2005, yielded no sense of divine connection, despite my openness to it.
I had left home for basic training the day after I graduated from high school and spent the first five years of my adult life in the military. My experience there contributed to the fracturing of my worldview.
The deeply painful experience of seeing friends in the veteran community struggling with physical and psychological injuries, substance abuse rooted in those injuries, and suicide--as well as witnessing from afar the consequences of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq--caused deep and long-lasting moral injury that I continue to wrestle with.
Despite my resulting dread of conflict prevention and resolution, I developed a passion for the field that motivated me to eventually move to Washington, DC, and pursue graduate studies focused on US foreign policy in the Middle East. By the summer of 2015 I was feeling burned out by my absorption in the high-stakes Iran nuclear negotiations, which I was analyzing in a professional capacity while advocating for it in my own private capacity. I was looking forward to a week of rest and adventure in the desert.
My journey to Burning Man was something of a spiritual rite of passage in itself. It entailed a circuitous flight from Washington, DC, to Reno, Nevada, followed by an...