This past weekend, a man ran into an effigy burn and died
, apparently as a premeditated suicide. This occurred at Element 11
, a regional Burning Man event in the Utah desert. The Utah Burner community and others who attended the event are doing some serious processing and supporting this week and there's a lot of discussion happening in the broader Burning Man community. On my favorite mailing list, someone asked
Do we know why people run into fire?
I don't know any particulars about why this particular human ran into this particular fire, but I had a lot of thoughts about humans and our general relationship to fire.
There's a lot of symbolism and human cultural context wrapped up in fire. It's long been an element of mystery, harder to predict and control than air, earth, and water. We are often drawn to what we don't understand. Fortunately the discomfort of a fire's heat usually keeps us from playing too closely with fire, though many a young child has received a direct lesson as a result of their curiosity. Many people at Burner events cultivate a state of childlike wonder and, at times, lack of awareness of personal safety.
One of my favorite quotes about religion goes
There are three ways of knowing a thing. Take for instance a flame. One can be told of the flame, one can see the flame with his own eyes, and finally one can reach out and be burned by it. In this way, we Sufis seek to be burned by God.
Fire and community are intertwined; it's a big part of why Burning Man works. From burn barrels to camp fires to bonfires, humans are drawn to the warmth and the light. Encircling a fire, you can see (because it's light) everyone (because it's a circle) and you see that they can also see you. We tell stories around fires. We cook food on fires. We bring fire to all our major ceremonial events. This is how community grows.
Since fire is a key ingredient in story and spectacle, death by fire is often a very public death. Burning at the stake
was often a punishment for heresy, witchcraft, and other cultural crimes in which authorities wish to set a cultural expectation with the execution.
The myth of Icarus also shows an ancient warning about drawing too close to the fire and the dangers of hubris and brashness. He didn't even make it to the fiery sun, but his quest to do so killed him nonetheless.
Suicide by fire, much less common than execution, can also reach a much larger audience than many other forms of self-harm. Thích Quảng Đức
brought global attention to conflicts between the South Vietnamese government and the Buddhist community in one of the most famous protests of the 20th Century. I doubt he would be remembered today had he died by hunger strike.
I don't know if or how the decedent at Element 11 planned his immolation, nor do I know what message he expected the community to take from the act. I suspect, though, he chose (perhaps subconsciously) this way to die in part because of its publicity; he knew this act would be known to the community. Had he wanted a private death he would have chosen a different method. There were surely inward reasons as well, whether it's fire's symbolism as purification, mystery, dynamism, emotion, passion, or some other way that flame spoke to him.
Fortunately, the community which was shocked by this act can also support each other in recovering. And that community has a larger, encircling community that can provide support for that network of support.
Footnote: Wikipedia's Icarus article
has links to a few other cultures' myths of similar characters. Not to mention the cultural mythology of my teenage years, Pink Floyd, with this great live performance of Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun with a gong on fire