Given July 24, 2015 to ICUJP Forum as the morning reflection
This reflection "spoke to my condition" when I heard Dick Bunce speak at Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (ICUJP) last week. Dick is a retired pastor and activist for mental health concerns. He speaks about the importance of self-care--being aware of one's feelings and needs, taking time to eat well, go for walks, play, and pray. Basic stuff, but easy to forget, when one feels called to make a difference in the world.
My reflection topic is activist burnout. What are some causes and symptoms of activist burnout, and what are we learning about self-care? This talk gets a bit dark. But trust me, I will get to the sunnier theme of self-care.
In the early ‘60s, Saul Alinsky famously said that he liked working with young clergy because they burn with a pure white flame. Back then, I fit this description. In those years of burgeoning idealism and activism, I burned with a pure white flame.
But it wasn’t long before the flame became less pure. Other colors entered in, like orange and purple – orange for an overabundance of anger, purple for disappointment and disillusionment.
Many in this room might be able to tell a similar story of those years. Consider the Kennedy idealism that created the Peace Corp. I heard that call and entered a similar program under the auspices of the church. As I readied myself to go abroad, the Dallas gunshots resonated around the globe and echoed in my head.
When I returned to the States, I jumped into the flowing stream of urban anti-poverty, anti-racist activism. Pam and I were deeply moved in hearing Dr. King preach in person and at close range as he gave wings to our dreams for a transformed society. Within six months, the gunshots were heard again.
I was in furious opposition to the Vietnam War, picketing, marching, and draft counseling, all the while hoping that some key people in the halls of power would take some risks and lead us out of the madness of that war. Bobby Kennedy took that risk, and the gunshots were heard again.
On goes a litany of losses – the shredding of the New Deal, the blundering savagery in the Middle East, the giant, pulverizing wheels of free market, global capitalism, the new Jim Crow heard in the slamming of prison doors, and the hard-won gains against racism, sexism, and homophobia facing countervailing pressures at every turn. Disillusionment abounds.
All of this in the macrocosm is reflected in the microcosm. Our efforts in the local schools, on the local streets and elsewhere face similar setbacks and disasters. Two steps forward, then one or two or even three back. So we try again, and still again.
Add to this the fact that social change and the organizing it entails is hard work. For one thing, it involves working with other people, and people can be irritating: the person who comes late to a meeting, misses the discussion on a tough issue, then upon arrival wants to upset the barely stabilized applecart. The person who sits at the table immersed in her or his smart phone when you’re wanting the courtesy of her or his attention. The person who takes on a key job, then is missing in action. I’ve probably done some version of all of this at one time or another. People can be irritating, myself included.
Managing one’s emotions is another challenge. We are motivated to some extent by anger. It’s a powerful, indispensable fuel for our work. But anger can become hardened and divisive, or It can flame out like a Roman candle. Learning to embrace our anger and cultivate it wisely is not easy.
Related to the anger is our passion for social justice and the corollary of compassion for victims of social injustice - the children, women, and men who are desperate for help, empowerment, and companionship. Yet, with each person plucked out of the muck and mire, we see more and still more victims, and through the months and years, something called compassion fatigue often sets in.
In essence - and I quote the book Career Burnout by Pines and Aronson - “burnout is brought about by long term involvement in situations that are emotionally demanding. The emotional demands are often caused by a combination of very high expectations and chronic situational stress.”
I and many more have every right to say to Saul Alinsky that our white flame became impure a long time ago, and has been known to become dim and even vanish – at least for a time.
In the face of burnout, the temptation is to put on the leather jacket of stoicism and simply keep moving irrespective of feelings or lack thereof. So, on we go juggling our schedules, running from one thing to another, hoping people will show up, and wondering if the meager funds will hold up through the year.
At the opposite extreme of stoicism is the temptation is to drop out. Many have done just that.
It’s far better that we acknowledge that we are not machines. It’s preferable to recognize that symptoms, such as loss of energy and enthusiasm, loss of hope, loss of kindness and sociability do happen to most - if not all - of us to some degree and from time to time.
So what are we learning about self-care?
The first step is to take our own temperature now and then. How are we doing emotionally, mentally, and even physically? Are we losing momentum, are we overreacting, are we feeling hopeless or helpless?
This temperature taking may sound like mere naval gazing. Yet it’s been said that self-care is a revolutionary act because it keeps us in the fray.
It’s crucial that we abide by the basics: eat nourishing meals, get adequate sleep, exercise. I’m quite the keeper of do-lists. I’ve learned to put bicycling right in with the better-do-it-or-else items on my list.
Mindfulness is becoming one of the basics. This involves the ability to shut out the past and the future and abide in the present. Earlier this week, I grabbed my favorite deck chair and sat in my patio for half an hour. I just sat there and looked around at the trees swaying in the breeze, the roses in the various stages of blooming, thriving, and dying, my two dogs as they moved their nostrils with every new scent, the birds as they conversed overhead (and thankfully they didn’t drop their payload on me, spoiling my St. Francis moment.) I was busy looking, listening. There was no room for past or future. I was in the present.
Sometimes at the breakfast table I push the morning paper aside, slow my pace, and concentrate solely on the aromas and flavors of my breakfast.
A key element of mindfulness is breathing deeply and rhythmically. This calms the nervous system and gets oxygen to the brain. Broodings over the past and anxieties about the future have a harder time taking hold when we throw open the windows of our physical house and allow the fresh air of deep breathing to come in.
There’s much more we can do. We can take some time off. We can get a massage. We can go hiking or do yoga. We can stretch out on the floor and listen to Mozart. We can go out back, put our feet in a tub of water, and read a silly book. We can play with children. We can use our creativity to come up with whatever works best for us.
The other day, my 4 year old granddaughter and I took turns. I would erect a big, high tower with building blocks, and she would knock it down. Then she would build a big high tower, and I would knock it down. She squealed with delight, and in those moments there was no room in my head for Donald Trump.
Given that I’m a person of faith, I’m not about to pass over the dimension of spirituality. Despite my Presbyterian background, I define spirituality broadly. The definition I like best is this: Spirituality is anything that nurtures our own intrinsic worth and beauty and the intrinsic worth and beauty of all life on Earth.
I’ve already mentioned several options that can provide this kind of nurturing influence.
Spirituality is restorative. It allows us to receive the larger picture and to hear the kindness that’s all around us. It allows us to bring our guilt to the surface and deal with it. It allows us to find the grace to be compassionate, even toward ourselves. Maya Angelou said she doesn’t trust it when people say they love her when it’s clear that they don’t love themselves.
Spirituality enables us to listen more deeply. I’ll close with a free verse poem I wrote awhile back. It tells some of my ongoing story. Maybe it will tell some of yours now or going forward. It’s entitled, Listening.
I listened to the world
In search of truth, purpose, place.
The listening became
But to stop
And listen beyond the listening.
The quiet descends
Like a light rain
That leaves all
More fresh and clear.
The mind gives way to the soul,
Treats the soul with honor
And is honored in return.