Being an ‘activist’ is a crucial part of my identity. It can be a difficult thing to be, in a society where ‘politics’ is a dirty word and its practice is often at best frowned upon, but I’m glad I’ve made it to this place. To be part of wider movements, making friends with incredibly talented, dedicated and inspiring people and, in my own flawed, stumbling way, trying to make the world a little bit better, is an enormous joy and privilege that not everyone gets to enjoy.
Yet it can also be remorseless, endless, thankless work. You might pour your heart and soul into a project for months and end up achieving little, if any, of what you wanted to. This lack of progress can be so draining that you have to stop trying, just for a little bit, but this in turn makes you feel worse, in a vicious spiral of self-criticism. The world can be an unfair place, constantly thwarting what you think is just, and it’s easy to internalise these barriers as personal flaws and failings.
We can take this internalisation too far. Sometimes the pressure to act and feel and be a highly energetic, intelligent, persuasive and resourceful campaigner, charging endlessly through protests and meetings and email lists, and getting everything just right, is simply too much. Yet to admit this, to recognise it and step back, or worse not recognise it and burnout, can make you feel like a huge failure. In an age of such intense social comparison, it’s all too easy to feel like you’re not doing enough for the cause, while comrades and friends around you are doing so much more.
I’ve been going through some of this myself recently, really struggling to find the energy to engage with activism, or the wisdom to figure out ways forward on difficult issues. Growing increasingly aware of how little I’m doing, whilst seeing those around me achieve brilliant things, only makes me feel worse and therefore less likely to engage. I’ve had some personal stuff going on, and I’m doing a PhD, which comes with its own bucketful of challenges, but there are others who face far higher hurdles than I do. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for them to continue to participate.
Whilst interpersonal competition and social comparison have always been present in society, they have been hugely exacerbated by the neoliberal rationale, a schema that may be being inadvertently replicated by the very activist groups founded to defy it. The pursuit of being the ‘best’ activist, involved in the most things, with the busiest schedule, juggling the most projects, helps no one, but it’s an easy game to be pulled into.
Who are we doing this for, and who are we leaving behind?
My advice, my plea, is twofold. Firstly, for those experiencing anything like what I’ve described: it’s ok. Even if you don’t have a diagnosed mental or physical problem, even if you don’t have loads of personal stuff going on, if you just need to not be doing for a little while… that’s ok. You’re still valued, loved and bloody brilliant. The fight will still be here when you’re ready. If you want to get back into things but are struggling, don’t be afraid to slowly ease yourself back in, and focus on what you do achieve each day, not what you don’t.
Secondly, for those that haven’t experienced anything like this, be patient and understanding. That person that isn’t getting back to you, or hasn’t showed up to a meeting in a while, might be some ways down that vicious spiral. Don’t nag them about the task but instead ask if they’re ok, or if they want to hang out and do something non-activisty. It can be easy for us to get caught up in doing, doing doing, and showing it all off, but sometimes we lose sight of both the why and the who. What broader purpose drives us? Are we living it in how we’re approaching our activism? Who are we doing this for, and who are we leaving behind?
We need more space for discussion about the cultures that are generated within grassroots organising groups, the ways in which we discuss activists and activism and the extent to which we look after and support one another. Sometimes people need to take a step back, or away, for no discernible reason. Sometimes people just need space. We need to learn to be ok with that, both for ourselves and for others around us. We need to build movements that can sustain those breaks too, that don’t require too much of people too often, and that involve a range of tasks that require differing levels of energy and commitment. Above all, we need to make sure our activism is fuelled by compassion and cooperation, not mindless competition to be the best.
Featured image credit: truthseeker08
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