This morning I read something my friend Ben wrote about his search for an answer to the question “why are we here.” About halfway through the story what popped into my head was the phrase “only connect.” This motto from Howard’s End was oft repeated in my college years by Bill Cronon who was, in those days, running the Honors college and working to create a program in Chadbourne Hall that looked more like the residential colleges of Yale than the typical UW dorms. I was privileged, I think, to at that formative point in my life have been surrounded by so many people really interested in learning and thinking about the world. Of course I spent many of the years following that in academia so I have spent most of my adult life surrounded by really smart, interesting people. But smart people very focused on their own areas are different than smart people interested in the whole of the world around them, in connecting ideas, connecting people, just connecting.
I haven’t thought about that phrase in years, I don’t think. But having just come back from Burning Man–a week camping in a harsh desert environment surrounded by amazing large scale art and mind-blowing people–my brain is primed both for thinking about the why are we here question and the idea of connections. I had been to Burning Man before, three summers ago. And I always fully intended to go back because it was fun and some people I like a great deal go regularly. But I didn’t quite feel like the event lived up to the hype. Indeed it was merely weeks ago that I had a conversation in which I argued that Burning Man is not inherently a life-changing experience. And to a certain extent I’m still willing to stick by that. I don’t buy it as a new model for the utopian society. I don’t buy it as a gospel that I should be spreading to the masses. It’s a festival in the desert. The scale of it is mind-boggling, I’ll give you that. But it’s still 50,000 people coming together in an insanely harsh environment and bringing with them all the pieces of who they were before they got there. Sure there are different norms in Black Rock City. There’s space to try to figure out who it is you want to be, but the dichotomy that many people draw between BRC and the default world feels false to me. I feel like it creates this suggestion that we are different people when we are there, rather than creating a space to try being the same people doing different things.
This year there were some things that happened that gave me great heaping plates of food for thought. And I want to believe that I can actually use that as a catalyst to change my life in certain ways that have needed changing for a great many years (though I think I would still argue that Burning Man is not a life-changing event, just an inspirational one because now that I am home the real work of changing the patterns that have been harmful to me still needs to be done). But one of the things I’ve been thinking about hard is this question of connection. In those halcyon college days my life was chock full of connections that felt meaningful and deep even when they were brief. That sort of thing sustained me, made me feel as if the world was an interesting and worthwhile place. I was happy and excited about my life.
Somewhere along the line I let go of that searching for connections and just focused more and more on the day-to-day and the practical. As the years passed I think I cut myself off from people more and more. I am surrounded by amazing friends who I do feel that I connect with, but I don’t make quite the same effort I did all those years ago to start new conversations, to learn new things about people. I miss that. And a week in the desert has convinced me that I am still capable of it, even if I do feel like the intervening years have left me scarred and jaded.
Ben’s punchline is ultimately perhaps better than mine. But in the end, I think the only answer to “why are we here” is to live and love as well and as interestingly as we can. And connecting to other people, even if only briefly, is one way to do that. I think in the intervening years I’ve become too concerned about how connections flitted away, losing track of how they were formed and how they fed me at the time in the process. It may be a very long time before I again reach a point where I trust connections to last any real amount of time at all. But I think I can see my way forward again to a point where I remember how connecting for its own sake enriches my life more than the pain of connections that break reduces it.