An open letter to Bo Burnham
I don’t quite know what to say to you, just like I didn’t know what to say to my two friends yesterday after watching your new Netflix special. We sat in silence for a while as the credits rolled. None of our words could take root in the ashen silence cleared by the wildfire of your offering. So we took a walk with the dogs, moved our bodies, shirts off, pale skin to the sun. I went barefoot. I needed to feel the grass licking my feet, the heavy embrace of the humid air. I didn’t want to be inside anymore, the place, or the state, where you took us.
You held up your hands in the dark storm of our times and made of your mind and body a lightning rod for the electric pain of your people to move, drawing it out of the skies of unconsciousness into the hard ground of what we are willing to admit and to accept. Watching your special was like touching the electrified lightning rod of you, for a moment. What is it like, I wonder, to be that lightning rod? A lightning rod needs grounding, needs earth. What is your earth?
I still don’t know what to say to you, although this letter does seem to be flowing. I notice the impulse to correct you, as a father might feel to correct his child upon seeing him play with a razor-sharp knife (that scene, by the way, was utterly chilling). And, seeing you cut, I notice the impulse to mend, to heal, to save. It’s difficult to bear, to see you bleeding out, and bleeding out undisguised, unhidden, outside the room of your inherited isolation, for all of us to see.
But we are bleeding out, most of us, and for one with eyes to see, the agony is everywhere, in every human, and in every square inch of land that has been touched by our agonized hands, which is every square inch, and in the body of every non-human being affected by our agony, which is every body. Who remains untouched by the pain of our condition? What, exactly, is our condition?
You gave us a glimpse into our condition, or into what we’ve become inside these conditions that are our destiny to experience and to understand.
What is it like, to be inside this mind, this body? To be inside this nation, this culture? To be inside this storied web of illusions so fervently believed in as to be mistaken for reality? Perhaps we wondered these questions before we took birth into these bodies, back when we were souls circling the earth like faithful, watchful moons, observing the humans and their struggle to understand those experiences which their inevitable ignorance — now yours, and mine — pushed them into like a knowing, unyielding mother bird pushes her babies out the nest. We were pushed out the nest when our mothers pushed us out their wombs and we’ve been flying ever since, and falling, and taking damage as we hit the pavement which seems so real, but dissolves after impact so that we keep falling, and hit the next rock bottom, which bottoms out into the next, and the next, until the baby bird of our souls finds her wings and remembers she’s flying, and that there is no ground other than the earth, and that to walk upon the earth, barefoot, is an experience worth having so long as she has feet, and that to have loneliness is no less worthy, and self-hatred, no less worthy, and arrogance and shame and terror, too.
These experiences, every one of them a holy treasure, in need of enshrining on the altar of our understanding. The sacrifice we make at this altar is not an offering of gold or of our finest cow. It is, simply, that we experience the thing. That is the cut across the cow’s neck, the leather pouch of gold.
Sacrifice, I’m told, means “to make sacred.” You did that in your special. You made an altar, and became a lightning rod, and showed us what it’s like to experience being yourself in the conditions of this storm that we call the norm. You reached out with the moving light of the screen, the moving light of yourself, through the darkness, to share that experience with us. Your move forces our hand. I felt you asking me, “Can you experience what’s inside you? Can you stay? Can you really be with what’s happening here, in you, and in me?”
Bo, my soul cries out to you as a warrior of old might cry out on the battlefield, seeing one of his cherished brothers rush first and headlong into the fray, a man making sacred his life that his people might survive and continue on. I imagine those warriors sometimes in the humdrum mundanity of my life, wielding sword and ax, entirely surrendered to their deaths, and entirely alive, not knowing whether their efforts will be enough to turn the tide but knowing that their efforts are needed and trusting that in making sacrifice they are at least meeting, if not defeating, the forces which have come to destroy the ones they love.
I see you as such a man, Bo. Thank you for meeting that which has come for us, for giving yourself entirely to experiencing what we are each, in our own respective ways, enduring. The pain is our lightning, and has the power to enlighten. May you find the earth today with your bare feet, and ground into the unshakable reality of your belonging.