US activist and educator Daniel Hunter shares important tips for sustaining ourselves and our movements in the face of challenging times. This article was written in response to the election of President Donald Trump but has relevant lessons for other times and places.
Many of our responses to Trump have us caught in a whirlwind that goes like this: Trump does awful thing, we spring into defense, emotional turmoil ensues, and repeat. It’s our own rinse-wash-repeat cycle.
Of course this is understandable. Things are moving at a fast rate, and we’re all catching our breaths from the new regime.
But we cannot manifest social change if we cannot defy the times.
Defying the times means not allowing Trump and his forces to set the terms of the debate for us. It’s not about if climate change is real — it’s about what’s your solution. It means we should not fall into the trap of letting our opponents solely set the language, location or policies and proposals to be discussed.
It means we build out what George Lakey calls “offensive campaigns.”
And many of us are not there yet. We’re still swirling in a reactive moment, passing on the latest fear-inducing analyses among each other. So how do we develop campaigns that regain the initiative?
We start by defying the times inside of ourselves. We stop behaviors that feed the hype, like using greater and greater levels of urgency as the means to provoke people into action. And we encourage responsible behaviors that fuel long-term movement resistance.
Here are seven behaviors that we could incorporate into our organizations and groups to strengthen our movements, so we can keep taking more and more powerful and strategic actions.
1. I will make a conscious decision about when and where I’ll get news — and what I’ll do afterwards.
One way to think about this is making a value of psychic protection. Exposure to awfulness sometimes creates action; it is also a near-guaranteed recipe for long-term burnout.
When we think about getting our news: Which news sources help us understand the world more fully, and which ones only leave us fearful and despairing? How do we share news with each other that is based on informing, not merely working out our angst?
After getting news, what works for you: moving your body, talking with friends, hopping onto social media? Make it conscious — and if it doesn’t work, don’t keep doing it.
Many “news” sources are designed to trigger fears, sell products, create an addiction to that source, or reinforce pre-existing beliefs. Our goal is to understand what is happening in our world fully enough to be able to engage with it. Much of the information we need comes not from the news, but from the world around us, i.e., observable natural and human capacities, so it is critical to pay attention to those as well.
2. I will get together with some people face-to-face to support each other and make sure we stay in motion.
The goal is accountability, so that we don’t freeze up in the face of overload or despair. Check in to share and reflect on how you are staying in motion (like writing letters, volunteering, creating resistance art, preparing direct action campaigns). This may be in formal settings such as meetings or facilitated spaces, or informal spaces such as cafes, over dinner tables, or at the gym.
A natural response to conflict is to fight, flee or freeze. In the right context these instincts can lead to survival. Recognizing when you are frozen is important because the longer you stay stuck the harder it is to move, take care of yourself, and be an agent of change. Of course, the goal isn’t just a fight or flight survival response, but linking that to our higher brain functions and bigger strategic actions. The support of others helps us do that.
3. I will pray, meditate or reflect on those I know who are being impacted by oppressive policies, and extend that love to all who may be suffering.
Learn to cultivate love. One starting point may be holding compassionate space for your own pain or the pain of those close to you who are being impacted by the policies and politics of the time. In that reflective space you can give yourself space to be, feel loss, grief, anger, frustration, helplessness and conviction. Then hold your love and extend it beyond, to others you may not know who are also suffering. And lastly, take time to notice that this is not all of your reality: You also need joy in your life. Whether surrounded by beautiful music, love from family or friends, or beauty around you, take delight in creation. Joy in the face of hard times is not a luxury, it is a necessity.
We have to learn to hold the emotions of these times, and continually grow our hearts to be in touch with the suffering of others, both within and beyond our own circle. Without extending our love to others, we are in no spiritual position to defend and struggle with them.
4. I will read, listen to, or share a story about how others have resisted injustice.
Millions have faced repression and injustices and we all can learn from them. Stories may be from ancestors, contemporaries in this country, or lessons from those around the globe who have faced more severe and repressive governments. The goal is to become a student of history so that you can take inspiration and deepen your understanding of how to struggle and thrive.
To find stories, seek out elders in your community, activists who have been in the trenches, and people who have lived through injustice. See the suggested resources at Finding Steady Ground.
5. I will be aware of myself as one who creates.
The goal of injustice is to breed passivity — to make us believe that things happen to us, events happen to us, policies happen to us. To counteract this, we need to stay in touch with our sense of personal power. One goal is to see ourselves as people who create, whether it’s cooking a meal, organizing a dazzling dramatic action, knitting a hat, making a sign, or playing the piano. We are more than consumers, and our humanity must be affirmed.
6. I will take a conscious break from social media.
Instead, fill the time with intentional and direct human interaction. You could take a full day a week away from social media as a healthy minimum, but you decide what is right for you.
The research is clear: staying on social media leads to more anxiety, more disconnection, and more mental distress. The exposure to graphic images and reactionary language too often keeps us in our reptilian (fight or flight) brain. That’s not to deny the power of social media, but for our own well-being, we must find healthy boundaries.
7. I will commit to sharing with others what’s helping me.
This is not a complete list, but rather a baseline for maintaining emotional well-being in hard times. These are keystone behaviors that can help generate new patterns and consciousness.
If we do these behaviors, they will start crafting space inside ourselves to get out of reactive mode, fostering habits that keep us centered and build connection. From a strong foundation we can be more creative, dream big and craft strategies that defy the times.
About the author
Daniel Hunter is a US based social movement trainer, strategist and author. As a trainer with Training for Change he is sought all over the world to train activists in experiential methodology, campaign strategy and direct action. He was a lead campaigner on the Casino-Free Philadelphia campaign, about which he wrote his book Strategy and Soul.