Activist Burnout: CurbIt

I was recently given the honour of speaking to a group of young, budding activists about the perils and rewards of life at the political front. I am by no means an expert at anything, much less activism, but I thought of a couple tips that I’ve found useful in the organizing I have had the honour to do. In no particular order, here they are:

1. Think lily pads — not mountains.

I must begin by conceding that I cannot take credit for this advice; rather, I pull it from the wonderful book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman. (On a side note — this book probably saved me from killing myself while finishing my PhD. Get it. ) The idea behind this simple concept is that we should of life is comprised of lily pads not mountains. Thinking of life like mountains–goals or achievements towards which we’re assiduously striving–is wrong and deleterious. Mountains imply one-directionality and tunnel-vision. On the mountain-view-of-life, failure to move in a direction towards that narrowly defined goal at the summit is tantamount to defeat. No sin is greater in our achievement-oriented culture. But surely this is ridiculous. Over the course of our lives we change, and our interests and energy change accordingly. The lily-pad-view-of-life holds that if we get tired, or fed-up, or interested in something else, we can just switch lily pads. If you don’t like your lily pad, just jump to another one. It’s not a mark of defeat. It’s not an indication of failure. It’s just a switch. No fine print.

The analogy to activist undertakings should be obvious. Sometimes you just get annoyed or tired of an activist project. It may be hard to quit because people rely on you, but it’s ok to get things to a certain point and move on. Otherwise activism becomes a mountain that drains us of the energy and wherewithal to do any activism whatsoever

2. Accept You

Gushy as hell, right? Allow me to explain. In my limited but illuminating experience as an activist I discern two types of activist instinct. Type A Activist is someone who grabs the means of power and yields it with ease and affect. Type B Activist focuses on outreach, on getting someone from A to B. These are dispositions, proclivities–whatever you want to call them. The fact is these typologies have a huge impact on how campaigns process or groups function. Importantly, both are integral to successful activism, but only when activated in appropriate spaces, and only when we have the humility to recognize who were are and what our limits are. There are times when “civility” and “outreach”  is inappropriate. For example, when an elected official or spokesperson uses offensive language or ideas to diminish the claims of a political group. This is a familiar dynamic at many Thanksgiving dinner tables.  My instinct during such scenarios is to probe the person’s assumptions, to give them the benefit of the doubt, to nod approvingly while scheming to chart some course of persuasion. I am Type B. Type A is my sister: she rolls her eyes, says something equally erudite and scathing, and lampoons the offensive remark for the remainder of the dinner. She has balls. She is Type A.

Successful activism needs both Type A and Type B. But what it doesn’t need is Type A responding to situations where a Type B approach is a) potentially more productive and b) more respectful. Equally, Type B activists need to develop the capacity to identify situation where Type A methods are most effective, and perhaps develop their own balls (apologies for the gendered language—I’m drinking).

This is hard. And it require a lot of lengthy self-reflection and discipline. But it is vital to accept yourself and recognize where your innate talents will work best for the cause.

3. Don’t be mad at privilege.

Allow me to clarify: yes, object to privilege. But objecting to privilege and being mad at it are two different undertakings. The former is reasonable, somewhat detached, and consistent with socialist sentiment and philosophy. The second is wasteful, over-involved, and potentially balkanizing. Anger is useful. But it can also cripple. It can drain us, making us tired and disheartened; or it can  or make us hateful, tapering our capacity to sympathize, understand, and reason. As a white person, I can appreciate that this “tip” reminisces of excusenikism–but as an educator I see often the damage of knee-jerk reactions to badly worded statements, or instances of genuine and inevitable ignorance. Because there is a difference between ignorance and prejudice. Until I began babysitting my Haitian-born cousin in my teens, I had absolutely no idea that African hair was soft to the touch. Raised in a virtually white, Boston suburb, I didn’t know otherwise. But I did know better than to ask about it. And this meant that until I had to sort out my cousin’s hair one morning after a swim at the pool I had no idea that although it looked very different than mine it felt exactly the same. Yes, this is privilege, but it is also ignorance, a lack of awareness shifted only by the opportunity of integration.

We should object to privilege. We should not be shy about pointing out. But to invest ourselves in policing it with full force and dedication at every utterance is to surrender valuable internal resources and possibly burn bridges we don’t want to burn.

4. Artistic release.

This is the tip I can articulate the least. I don’t know exactly how it will play out for each and every individual. But what I do know is this: the daily grind of activism and the emotional labour it demands is soul-destroying. This we know. What we perhaps fail to realize is the equally pernicious toll it takes on our capacity to imagine. The politics of today is not the politics of tomorrow. This is why we can hope. But it’s unreality is also an obstacle, because it means that we don’t have obvious precedents for a future society. Art can fix by transporting us to a different version of reality in which the degradations of the now become illuminated and obvious, and the alternatives become visible and tangible. Whatever it is — films, podcasts, architecture, food, visual art, literature, music — use it as a way to get of your head. Because we all know that out minds is what an activist most urgently needs a break from.

5. Build your people.

I take this point from Chapo Trap House, specifically, the episode where the venerable Amber A’Lee Frost talks about the “burnt-out” activists she knows in her life, and where she advocates for the centrality of friendship and community in our socialist endeavours.

The importance of this cannot be understated. Activism built on trust, friendship, and laughter is robust. It is a form of community that can absorb defeat, failure, and abuse. Most of all, it fosters, as I emphasized in point 4, creativity. At the academic institution where I work, gender consciousness was virtually nonexistent. Where it did percolate, it often faded out in a whimper. This drove me crazy. I cannot be the energy for myself. Can anyone? I needed dialogue, I needed others’ perspectives, I needed opportunities to vent about issues related to gender and sexuality. Thankfully, I was not the only one, and over the course of the year myself and others built up a small but vibrant,  supportive of friends and interlocutors. In this space we were able to come together in the spirit of good-will to discuss gender and its many ramifications for our lives and work. This form of consciousness raising takes time, but its rewards are ample and indispensable. Liberals speak often of the importance of self-care. Sure. But self-care cannot consist in just yoga, just meditation, or just long walks in the woods — it arises also from the practice of sharing, negotiation, and forgiveness with others. Self care is communal.


I laid out these points originally for students ages 18-22. But they apply, I think,to all of us, in our many walks of life, not just activism but also in our relationships and work-spaces. I would love to hear your feedback. Thank you.






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