“A brilliant spark that will fly through the air and set the vapors of our insurrectionary imaginations alight.”John Jordan, founder of Reclaim the Streets
“Let’s treat each other as if we plan to work side by side in struggle for many, many years to come. Because the task before us will demand nothing less.”Naomi Klein, address to Occupy Wall Street
Taking care of ourselves and having fun in our work for social change are essential to building stronger, larger, more effective movements.
Too often, the people doing the most to take care of the world do the least to take care of themselves. It happens far too frequently that a dedicated activist suddenly (or not so suddenly, for those who know them best) burns out and disappears from public view. This scenario is common enough, and represents a large enough threat to our collective success, that it warrants serious discussion and soul-searching within our movements. Specifically, we need to talk about how to take care of ourselves and each other so we can stay involved for the long haul.
Whether we like it or not, activists are walking advertisements for our movements. If we are exhausted, frustrated, overwhelmed or unhappy most of the time, we make a life of activism look extremely unattractive to the average person. Virtually every activist has struggled with the question of how to get beyond “preaching to the choir.” A first step is to make “the choir” the sort of place lots of people will want to join.
It is also important to ensure that pragmatic self-care is not seen as selfish or bourgeois. If we don’t take time to focus on our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual selves, we will burn out sooner or later. It’s almost guaranteed. Wouldn’t it be better to take regular breaks to nurture yourself, rather than get to the point where you have to take months or years off because you are too sick or depressed to be involved?
Activists are frequently motivated by guilt, and will unconsciously use guilt to motivate others. Guilt is a dangerous motivator because it will never be satisfied, and is rooted in a sense of external obligation rather than internal passion. A better motivator, for those who have some degree of privilege and feel guilty about that, is gratitude. Coming to this work from gratitude gives us energy without sucking us into despair and self-judgment.
These are deadly serious questions. Long-time Canadian activist Tooker Gomberg took his own life in 2004 after a long battle with depression and burn-out. Before he died, he wrote a letter to social change activists. Do the activism, he said, but don’t overdo it:
“It’s honorable to work to change the world, but do it in balance with other things. Explore and embrace the things you love to do, and you’ll be energetic and enthusiastic about the activism. Don’t drop hobbies or enjoyments. Be sure to hike and dance and sing. Keeping your spirit alive and healthy is fundamental if you are to keep going.”[ref]Tooker Gomberg, “Letter to an Activist, Earth Day 2002” (Greenspiration.org)[/ref]
It is important to take a long view of activism, to remember those who came before us and those who will come after. This can help us build on the work of previous generations and learn from their mistakes and triumphs, so that we are not always starting from scratch. We cannot carry all of the weight of the world’s problems on our shoulders; we must simply accept, with gratitude, the opportunity to do what we can today.
Don’t be a flake. Often, when people suddenly realize that they need to take better care of themselves or need a break, they flake out on existing commitments and leave comrades in the lurch. Learning to anticipate breaks, plan for them and not overcommit is a really important part of pacing. It’s better to sit out a game or two than to drop the ball mid-game.