Being an activist can be one of the most rewarding journeys in life, but it is important to be aware of the significant personal skills and awareness needed to avoid the pitfalls. The following are excerpts from ‘Chapter 12: Empowerment and personal sustainability: staying active and avoiding burnout’ from The Activists’ Handbook.
The making of a lifelong activist
Social change is usually a David and Goliath epic. People often take on causes that have not been taken on by others or which face an uphill battle against entrenched attitudes or beliefs. It’s important to be realistic about the task ahead, positive but also forgiving of oneself. You must be prepared to both forgive yourself (for perceived failures) and to congratulate yourself (for small successes). As with any long-term project you may need a little more than immediate success to sustain your enthusiasm; you need perseverance and faith to get through the long hard times.
Humility will help you to expect your path to be a long, slow one. Humility will also help you not to expect too much of yourself or to think you are the only one who cares or can do the job. Peavey (Heart Politics, 1986: 114) argues that you must fight the ego’s assertion that you are saving the world: ‘We all work to save little things … When it all gets put together it makes up the big things’ (ibid.: 115).
Because the campaign is likely to be a long one you need to be able to ‘live on the road’, so it is important not to place the rest of your life on hold while you get on with the campaign. Successful social change activists learn to be the tortoise rather than the hare. Looking after yourself and your family is important. The biggest danger is that you will decide that the campaign is just so much more important than you. This is a grave mistake and can lead to burnout, which it is important to try to avoid. Of course the campaign may be more important than you when looked at from outside, but not to you it isn’t. Remember, what we want is a more sustainable world, so achieving it sustainably has to be the first step.
Awakening involves dissonance
Another important thing to bear in mind is as your awareness grows and as you explore the facts about your issue is that you may find the situation is much worse than you previously realized. Shields (In the Tiger’s Mouth: An Empowerment Guide for Social Action,1991: ch. 1) explores the idea that becoming an activist involves becoming aware of what is wrong with the world and just how deep the underlying problems may be. In order to be able to bring about change for the better in an appropriate and targeted way we need to be able to take a good honest look at what is going on right now. It’s no secret that the entire planet is in peril environmentally, so wherever you look you are going to find some signs of ill health. As an activist you may be exposed to information not available to the general public; the situation may be worse than you realized and you will need to be able to integrate this new information. You will need strategies to carry all this information around without letting it get you down.
At first you may feel a lot of despair or anger or frustration. You need to be able to acknowledge these feelings, honour them, but not let them paralyse you. The key is to find the places where you are powerful, where you are hopeful and where you have the opportunity to make a difference. You need to remember that the problems already existed in the world before you noticed them; your awakening may well be very disturbing, and your internal feelings about the problems in the world don’t change it, but your actions might help to.
As well as being exposed to more information that may be disturbing to you, it’s possible that you will also experience a growing awareness of the hypocrisy and apathy that exist in society and experience great frustration about the attitudes and actions of others. As an activist educator of many years’ standing I have watched many people become new activists and go through this growing pain. Frequently a single issue will cause an individual to ‘take a stand’, at which point they do find their own power to make a difference and experience great empowerment. In a sense these are the first and second stages of becoming an activist.
The third stage is often even more momentous – it is like a further episode of dissonance. Many people have spent most of their lives with some kind of benign faith in the political system. When they take on an issue and poke their head into the world of politics and power, they suddenly see power imbalances, lies and injustices in the system, or simply widespread social apathy and denial, that they hadn’t really been aware of before. This can be experienced as a loss of innocence, or even as a deep sense of betrayal. In this process of transformation a person is likely to see that social change is needed at a deep structural level throughout society, and they may well significantly shift the focus of their activism from a single issue to a much deeper commitment to social justice, empowerment and participatory democracy generally. In a sense the activist moves into a ‘meta’ approach to social change and sees various single-issue causes as mere examples of a deeper malady that they are committed to addressing. The diagram below gives an example of a cascading process in which a person may end up orienting themselves towards a much broader picture of social change.
The spirituality of activism
It is difficult to seriously address the issue of burnout without delving into the spirituality of activism to some extent. This is because the prospect of burnout brings us face to face with the very things that first motivated us to become activists, the whole idea of what is meaningful or worthwhile committing oneself to, and the sometimes difficult balance between the needs of self and other. Starting from first principles, sustainable activism proceeds from a balanced understanding of what it is to be a human in a very large and complex universe. We need to be able to see ourselves as small, but yet as capable of choice, agency and effect. Our decision to be an activist comes from a sense of ethics (however this is derived) and personal motivation to act in a way that promotes those ethics. We need to have the humility to accept the diversity of the world and its people, yet be sure enough of our position to pursue our goal with dignity and persistence. Above all we need to understand that we are a natural, valid and relevant part of the universe, just as we are, and that we have nothing to prove.
It is hard for many of us to realize that the real cause of most of our internal suffering is ‘resistance’. Internally we resist the way the world is, or the way we expect it to be, and cause ourselves a lot of pain in the process (Thresholds of the Mind, Harris 2002: 71–2). It’s hard for many of us to understand that we can stop resisting something (by accepting that it is so), and yet continue to dedicate ourselves to changing it. Too often we think that feeling really bad, angry or stressed out about what’s wrong with the world is part of changing it. But in truth your bad feelings don’t make a difference to the outside world at all, they just hurt you; what makes a difference is the actions you take with the energy you have available. Resistance uses up the energy you could be using to promote change in the world.
These ideas about humility, acceptance, resistance and avoiding attaching our sense of self to outcomes start sounding very much like some Eastern religious tradition that we often associate with political passivity. But there is no need to become passive; quiet reflective determination is a very powerful way of being. The Dalai Lama is a famous example of an activist who proceeds from a foundation of compassion, humility and acceptance. If this were pure passivity then the Chinese government would not be nearly so worried.
The key message here is not, however, that you have to become like the Dalai Lama or Gandhi before you can be an activist; if we waited for that there’d not be enough activists. You don’t have to become perfect or enlightened first, but it is important to carry some of these messages with you. Activism will be a rocky path, and you will almost certainly find yourself needing some of these resources along the way. Activism cannot easily be separated from any other aspect of our lives – family, social life, physical health or spirituality.
The key to avoiding burnout is to develop personal habits and practices that nurture and sustain you and your loved ones internally, while taking your warrior’s sword to the problem.
The joys of activism
It would be misleading to end this chapter without discussing just how fulfilling and joyful a life of activism can be. Numerous studies confirm that engagement in charity work or in causes greater than the individual self are strongly linked to overall life happiness or satisfaction.
Being an activist can be a powerful antidote to feelings of powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation and boredom with life. As an activist you will meet a lot of strong, empowered and inspiring people, and probably won’t notice yourself becoming one of them as well. Some cynical people like to say that most people who work for charities and causes do so only to make themselves feel better – as if this is some kind of damning criticism. But think about it: if it makes you feel more connected and engaged with the world and gives you the satisfaction of helping bring about positive change as well, then it’s the ultimate win-win, so why don’t more of us wake up and join in. Go out and find yourself some old activists and ask them what the best years of their life were. Chances are they will tell you it was the height of their campaigning days.
Being an activist is about being a responsible and empowered citizen. It is about overcoming the passivity, self-doubt and resignation that hold much of the population captive to elitist power structures. Activism has the capacity not only to produce change in the world around us but also to be deeply transforming for us personally and spiritually. In many ways becoming an activist is like the completion of the process of moving from childhood to full adulthood. Instead of remaining passive and relying on the government to act as a paternal figure in their lives, activists take full personal responsibility for their place in the world and learn to accept and channel the personal political power within them. It is not surprising that it is a rocky path and that there are a number of pitfalls along the way. The risks are no reason to avoid the journey; it is an important journey for our overall collective evolution.
It is sincerely hoped that this chapter and indeed this book inspire people to have the courage and develop the skills to tackle the world’s problems and to make a difference. Activists and social movements are like the immune system of the body politic – they move to the sites of dysfunction and injustice and aim to fight, repair and heal. There is no end point to history or to social evolution; there will always be a need for activists and social movements to contribute to the betterment of the world around us.
For more see The Activists’ Handbook.
The author, Aidan Ricketts, teaches a university accredited subject that teaches the skills of campaigning, community activism and advocacy through the Southern Cross University School of Law and Justice. It runs as a 5 day intensive on the Gold Coast from 3-7 December 2019.