The worried activist’s syllogism:
Prolonged intense experiences lead to burnout. Being an activist engages people in prolonged intense experiences. Activism leads to burnout.
Engaging in something intense for months with little respite nearly guarantees you will burn out. It doesn’t matter if it’s training for sporting events, writing a book, non-stop parenting, or running for office. People fizzle. So I’ve been looking for and revisiting some wisdom on being resilient. This chapter, “Staying Fired Up” by Letty Cottin Pogrebin is sage. So I want to take a little time to think about it and link it to resilience (posted yesterday), and my quite imperfect approach to it over the last decade or so as a local environmentalist, social justice activist, and sustainability professional and advocate.
Pogebrin explains how activists, especially those on the left, think we can “call meetings, build coalitions, get thinkers to think, writers to write, funders to fund, organizers to organize—and before you know it, the problem will be solved.” Having been in this position on a few occasions, I see this kind of deluded thinking a fair amount. No one takes charge because we want to be egalitarian and don’t want to oppress one another. But at the same time, we are running around with little focus, trying our own things, and acting like bees without a central mission to bring back nectar.
We are well-meaning people as prone to the pitfalls of personhood as all people are. Activists (dare I say we?) clash because of ego or ideological purity, our issues get muddy, the opposition ramps up their activity, and our allies slow down or become disheartened. Some of us are busy with work while others don’t have full-time work and fulfill duties that make the full-time workers feel guilty. Parenting. Worry.
All of this happens all the time. It happens with the fracking movement. In the fight to get meaningful policy action on climate change. On the long fight for racial equality burnout happened thousands upon thousands of times. Women’s rights. LGBTQ. Child slavery. Human trafficking. We form a group to confront an issue. The issue turns into fifty issues. The opposition overwhelms us. A lot of people burn out and some never return as apathy takes over. Conviviality is crushed under the boots of greed, indifference, and power.
Hopelessness and despair.
Pogrebin asks, “Why haven’t we retained a critical mass of experienced social justice advocates? And how do we inoculate one another against losing heart and losing hope?” These are great questions, questions that apply not only to social, environmental, and ecological justice activists and advocates. I’d add to that, those of us working in sustainability, those trying to work through the established channels of institutional policy to right the juggernauts of business, industry, education, and government.
Many of us as activists and hardcore advocates practically fetishize emotionally traumatizing material. From scientists in love with the ocean who’ve watched coral reefs bleach and die to racial justice activists pushing against voting laws, we can live in a world of piss and vinegar. It’s hard stuff to take in and not be poisoned by it.
All of those things can lead to burnout. From the muddiness and intractability of the issue to the limits of ourselves as people, we face a regular and near constant struggle. Pogrebin says we are prone to three things that lead to burnout – backlash, backsliding, and backbiting.
Backlash “is the invidious, often invisible, countervailing response to any serious effort to challenge the status quo.” Fierce or seductive, the people and institutions we criticize and seek to transform or tear down will resist. Faced with the odds of never reaching the goal, many simply abandon the cause. Without them, the movement weakens.
Backsliding happens because progress is never uniform. As Pogrebin (and a million others say), we make two steps forward and we end up taking one back. I’d add being shoved back sometimes and others losing five steps or even being shoved onto another track. Without persistence and an understanding that there are ways forward, people burn out. They simply can’t tolerate that much disappointment for that long. Without them, the movement weakens.
Backbiting is, to my mind, the most insidious. Because unlike the previous two, it has to do with human nature, the quality of our characters, and how we align our actions with our goals. Where the previous two might just require some perseverance and tough skin, avoiding backbiting takes self-consciousness, reflection, empathy, and a commitment to others’ well-being. Pogrebin writes,
Say there is some controversy in the group about a particular political strategy. Instead of arguing about it on the merits, you denigrate your opponents behind their backs, diminish their opinion, role, or status in the group, or turn others against them with some unrelated intrigue or libel.
This is hard. It takes an assessment of motives and living into your character as an honest and critical person. And it’s not easy to do at all.
I think most of us believe we want to foster one another’s whole selves as well as our effectiveness in tackling the challenge(s) at hand. Meanwhile, we as individuals can be blind to our own ambitions or inabilities. You think you are strengthening someone when you are undercutting them. You think you’re “helping” by formulating something behind their backs when you’ve really just screwed them over and kept them from being able to be effective so that you can get the limelight. These are the things I worry about. Seeing around ourselves, or myself anyway, is very difficult. This is why honest confrontation and feedback is good for us. It hurts. But we need it to be our best selves and the most effective people we can be.
I am thinking about this right now because of what’s happening in State College with the Toll Brothers-Penn State issue in Ferguson Township. The status quo is plenty strong and well connected while the opposition is not. The sheer size of the walls built by the powers that be has already broken the bodies of activists who rode the first few waves, wishing their heat and passion would bore through. The backlash from the powers that be has made some hopeless. Some burned out after a subsequent wave. When it seemed that the State College Borough Water Authority might openly oppose the project there was some optimism. When SCBWA didn’t, and then other tactics became untenable, more dropped out. It appeared we were progressing, that the public was with us, and then we slid back to square one and a half.
Despite our community vision and a plethora of different means to try to stop the project, we have not. I’m sure that we are backbiting and undercutting one another through a back channel. Why in the hell is [NAME] doing that? and then we get into gossip, some of it honest or concerned and some of it petty and unproductive. All of it potential backbiting. We undermine our “ally” instead of bone up and try to hone our effectiveness together. What’s conscious? What’s unconscious?
But we are also frontbiting. What I mean by that is that we have had some useful confrontations too. They hurt. [I’ve been called a “sellout” for example.] But I am maintaining continuity between what I say in public and what I say in private. It is a strange kind of discomfort, like being quartered without being drawn. It’s like being pulled by the person in front of you while maintaining a connection to or understanding of the people you have spoken to before and all the while anchoring yourself in your values. So some of it may be what people want to hear and much of it not. The criticism must be spread around and I have to take it too. I also have to believe that with careful discernment (which I can still fail at doing) I can do the best things I can do and live into my best self.
To avoid burnout I’ve come to a position built on three pillars or commitments regarding the actual enactment of activism and advocacy. They tune and balance my approach to life and its challenges. I fail at integrating them well all the time, but they generally do me well, especially when I can ride them. They are these:
1. I have never regretted being kind. Kindness means being and living into friendliness, generosity, and consideration. I try to consider other’s feeling as if they were my own, grant them the benefit of the doubt as people trying to live a meaningful and caring life, and be friendly to them.
2. Hope lives in action. Every second that life keeps going is another second in which hope is latent. Every moment we are awake to the possibility of stewarding a healthy relationship is another moment pregnant with hope. Every interaction we foster for conviviality, for individual freedom realized in ecological interdependence, we actually create hope. And every time we broadcast these actions for conviviality whether as seeds in a garden, as messages on the airwaves, as a well-conceived classroom assignment or laughter with a student, or through acts of heroism (big or small) we awaken others to hope.
3. Love fiercely. This world needs to be loved more than anything else and I am in love with it. Just as the ravaging tides of adelgids are devastating the hemlocks and structural poverty, brutal racist incarceration practices, and chronic despair are gutting and emptying black neighborhoods of their men, so too does the hemlock provide a home for countless creatures in a dance at its roots and in its bark and the high-concentration black neighborhoods across the country have children making stories and cooking food and smiling and laughing in the face of such odds. And the structures we have made as a society, those we have co-created with our rules and our banks and our schools and our businesses and our religions, they must be loved fiercely too. And in so doing, we must shine that same love that emanates through the hemlock’s needles and off the teeth and eyes of a smiling child onto those who damage this world. Love is not the same as succor or coddling or praising. It demands criticism that is fierce. But just as a mother lion is fierce, so is she gentle and kind. She loves this world because she is of it.
All of these things, Mary Olive wrote best in “At Blackwater Woods.” The final lines:
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.
So I guess I’ve just opened up many things here and perhaps given myself more to consider. What about camaraderie? Exercise and relaxation? The acceptance of death and impermance? This work and the work of living is work always toward our deaths and the impermanence of the “I” we so desperately grip.
I wonder what you might be thinking now. These pillars are not for everyone. They are not a prescription. There are incredible and effective activists for whom these are not true. It’s also true that my commitments can sometimes make me absolutely the wrong person to do something. That is true for every single one of us. But by reflecting on our capacities and focusing on our core values, we can realize a more convivial world. How do you keep going?