Can we have a crisis-free day? A few thoughts on how to avoid activist burnout

After that last pessimistic post of mine, I’m sure a few people may want to disappear into their underground bunkers for a while. My partner Patricia and I have an American friend who wants to spend the next four years in Mexico, where it’s safe. 🙂

I can certainly understand. The sheer relentlessness of the strange and disturbing events that have been happening since Donald Trump came into office can be overwhelming. So much is happening so fast that for the dedicated activist, it seems that there are a hundred things to do at once. As Senator Susan Collins of Maine said recently, “Can we have a crisis-free day? That’s all I’m asking.” I think a lot of us are asking that.

In the face of this, I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue of burnout among activists. Patricia is a human rights defender here in Mexico, and burnout is something that human rights defenders here struggle with every day. They’ve been working so hard for so long in such dangerous life-or-death situations that they are constantly at the end of their rope. For this reason, Patricia teaches workshops on how to avoid burnout and how to recover from it when it happens.

There’s too much to those workshops to adequately summarize here (and they’re in Spanish anyway). But given the frantic whirlwind that many people feel themselves sucked into in the nascent Trump era, I’d like to share just a few burnout-prevention strategies that Patricia and I have found especially helpful.

Narrow your focus

If you’re interested in issues like I am, you probably have a constant stream of action alerts pouring into your e-mail inbox. Sign this petition to stop global warming. Call your Senators to demand an independent investigation into Trump’s Russian ties. Join the “Day Without Immigrants” march this Saturday. Above all, whatever the issue is, you should be “outraged” about it and act right now. It can all be just too much.

So personally, though all of these issues are important and interrelated, I find it absolutely essential to narrow my focus. None of us can do everything. Therefore, while I do sign a lot of petitions and such, I’ve chosen to focus the bulk of my energies on just a few specific issues. I’m especially interested in Latin American immigration since, given that I live in Mexico with a Mexican human rights activist, this is a deeply personal issue for me. Your issues, of course, may be different. But I encourage you to find the things that you are especially passionate about—ask for spiritual guidance about this if, like me, you find this helpful—and put your focus there.

Stop and think

“Stop and think” is a phrase Patricia and I use a lot, usually to avert a potential disaster. Patricia works with a number of activist colleagues who tend to go off half-cocked at the slightest provocation. I call it the “Ready, fire, aim” approach. Some distressing event will happen, they’ll get very emotional about it (quite understandable, given some of the horrific things that happen here), and they’ll just react without thinking.

Unfortunately, reacting without thinking almost always makes things worse. We’ve seen it with our own eyes—it can literally get you killed. To really be effective, we need to step back from the intensity of our emotions, take a deep breath, assess the situation rationally, have both a short-term and a long-term strategic plan, and carry out that plan when the need arises. Like an emergency medical technician, we need to act calmly and sensibly, even when we have to act quickly.

In my and Patricia’s experience, this is not only more effective in solving the problems that come up, but it also helps prevent burnout. Being constantly buffeted by emotional reactions that lead to haphazard, poorly thought-out actions is exhausting, and the ineffectiveness of those actions drains us even more. Taking the time to stop and think can save you from a lot of unnecessary distress.

Cultivate a spiritual practice

Patricia and I are both students of A Course in Miracles, and its practices of changing our thoughts, meditation, prayer, asking for divine guidance, seeing others with the eyes of love, extending expressions of love, etc. are an absolute lifeline for us. We often wonder how we could possibly do this work without the Course. It is the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food that sustains us.

But of course, different paths are appropriate for different people. Many of the human rights workers here in Mexico are Catholic, and Patricia often encourages them to take up the many helpful spiritual practices that are part of their tradition. And I’m using the term “spiritual” here in the broadest sense; even atheists can benefit from yoga or Tai Chi or meditation. I would say simply find a regular practice that is helpful for you and do it. I think you’ll be very glad you did.

Take time out for fun

Let’s face it, being part of the resistance is hard work. Human rights defenders in Mexico have been pushing the stone up the hill for a long time, and Americans in this new era of Trump are now pushing a pretty heavy stone of their own. No one can work so hard without respite. Sometimes, you just have to take a break.

So, Patricia and I always try to remember to take time out for fun. We watch our favorite movies and shows. We go to symphony concerts. We go out for delicious dinners at our favorite restaurants. We go to my running races, finishing off each morning’s activities with our traditional post-race breakfast (hot cakes with bacon for me). And we have what we call “cat days,” where we join our beloved cat Kiara in a day of sleeping, eating, and reading (well, Kiara doesn’t read too much). Of course, you have your own fun activities, and I encourage you to take time out for them.

Celebrate small accomplishments

The journey to positive social and political change, especially at a time where we seem to be going backward, can feel like such a slog. Facing a constant onslaught of bad news, it can be so easy for us to slide into a depressing pit of hopelessness where we’re constantly lamenting, “I’m not doing any good. What’s the point? I might as well just pack it in and start storing food for the apocalypse.” If we dwell in this pit of hopelessness long enough, burnout is virtually inevitable.

But if we’re really making an honest effort—and so many people are—we are doing far more good than we realize. And to bolster our spirits, we need to pay attention to the good that is happening, and celebrate it. I’ve been very gratified by events like the courts blocking Trump’s Muslim bans. I’ve been inspired by people like Justin Normand, who powerfully expressed his solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters by standing outside a mosque with a sign bearing the words “You belong.” Patricia and I raise a glass every time her organization is able to help a single migrant in need. ¡Salud!

I’m reminded of the old story of the man who was throwing beached starfish back into the water to keep them from dying. When a naysayer told him that what he was doing didn’t matter because he would never come close to saving all of the thousands of starfish on the beach, he picked up one, threw it in the water, and said, “It mattered to that one.” So I say, if you’ve done something that mattered to “that one,” celebrate it!

Think long term

This goes along with the previous point. Our small accomplishments are part of a much larger process of gradual progress. That progress can be very difficult to see when we look only at the short term, especially in particularly hard times. To cite one tragic (but sadly understandable) example, I’m currently reading a book called The World of Yesterday, by the Jewish Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. Living in exile in Brazil in 1942, Zweig lamented the vibrant Europe of his youth that was now going down in flames under the horror of the Nazis and the war to stop them. He was so devastated that the day after he posted this testament of times gone by for publication, he committed suicide.

But the fact remains that in the long term, we are making progress. Who in Zweig’s time could have imagined that the Europe of today, including Germany and Austria, is a peaceful union of strong democracies (in spite of disturbing recent developments)? Who in America a hundred years ago—when segregation and lynching of African-Americans was a daily fact of life, women didn’t yet have the vote, and gays were in the deepest of closets—could have imagined that in 2017 we’d have an African-American ex-president, a woman who would be president now if the popular vote determined the result, and gay marriage?

I’ve been a distance runner all my life, so when I talk about social and political progress, I like to say that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. For Patricia and me, keeping the bigger picture in view is a great aid in preventing burnout. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said (though he wasn’t the first to say it), “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Think about this for yourself: As you look back over the long expanse of time, what are some things you can think of that have dramatically changed for the better?

Nurture hope

Both of the last two points were essentially about replacing hopelessness with hope. Indeed, I believe that above all it is hopelessness that leads to activist burnout. So, we must always nurture hope. Along these lines, Patricia has a well-earned reputation as a “prophet of hope,” and I’ll never forget her account of a conference she once spoke at. The series of speakers that preceded her presented (sadly accurate) reports full of gloom and doom, and a dark cloud enveloped the whole room. Patricia was the last speaker, and before she started, a colleague who knew her reputation said to her, “Patricia, you have to give us hope.” Which she did, transforming the entire atmosphere at the conference.

I don’t remember precisely what Patricia said at that conference, but I know it was along the lines of what we always talk about at our daily “breakfast summits”: Hate and fear are temporary things, but love is eternal. There is no power greater in earth or Heaven. That race may seem long, but if we just keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep going in the right direction, we will reach the finish line. If we keep that in mind, the hopelessness that leads to burnout can be transformed into a hope that quickens our pace. Eyes on the prize. We can do it!

4 Replies to “Can we have a crisis-free day? A few thoughts on how to avoid activist burnout”

  1. Common sense activism. Thank you Greg for like Mark Travis is saying laying down some great wisdom. I am concern when I read about all the activisms going on that it is becoming activism for the shear sake of resisting. Anything to become an activist.

    I am a child of the 60s and I believe we blew it. We had a great opportunity to really change things but we burn out because we didn’t put in place everything you are suggesting here. Our activism turn into chaos and we were more than happy to became complacent instead of pacing ourselves to remain constantly, steadily, passionately and lovingly active for that peace that is escaping us still today.

    Cheers to your sharing and may it be heard by many.

  2. Thanks so much, Andre! As a child of the 70s, I have to say I think you guys did manage to accomplish a lot, and I want to thank you for that. At the same time, I understand exactly what you mean about the descent into chaos and then into complacency.

    I do hope that this time we can stay “steadily, passionately and lovingly active” over the long haul, and I hope my little tips here can help in that.

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