Alice B Reckless wrote a post on activist burnout. It’s really great. Read it now. I read it a few months ago, and it gave a way in to talk about my relationship with ‘activism’ and some of the strategies I use to navigate political activity and communities.
We need to talk about burnout, she writes.
It’s there physically in a lot of us. Our skin’s pale, there are bags under our eyes. We’re fatter or thinner than we habitually are, or were last time we were happy. We lose our tempers really, really fast. We talk to people with moderate politics as if they are evil or as if they are stupid.
This last one is something that I have often focused on as a huge problem in the activist community. Do we intend to be a minority? Do we not hope to recruit from those slightly more moderate than us? This last one is often a conflict between wishing to engage with those who are oppressed and inactive through their sense of powerlessness in the political system, and so are alienated by the prospect of insignificant change within the system as an end goal, and on the other hand to engage with those who believe that small change within the system does have at least medium-term if not short-term tangible benefits.
When I say we lose our tempers fast: I mean, really REALLY fast. And I’m pretty sure by now it’s not just me. The slightest indication that someone can’t see that the situation is fucked and that ordinary people are being aggressed against, and that suicide among the more precarious members of society is a direct effect of government policy, that we are therefore actually being killed at present, is a massive trigger, quickly producing tears, shouted insults, incoherent rage.
This person who is indicating that they don’t think of the situation as fucked . . . do they recognise it but take a realist stance that does not inspire them to fight at the systemic level? Have they had a lack of experience of the oppression of government policy? Or are they aware, and choosing not to take an activist from of action?
It’s hard to know. Which should we suppose?
there are times when we see in each other’s faces the bright and beautiful spirits that dreamed another option –
I am drawn to those bright and beautiful spirits and the dreams that we dare to dream. But I always feel that it is inevitable that those dreams are fleeting and momentarily. The anger and the hurt which drives activism is a precious resource. There is only so much emotion that a person can feel. People whose immediate communities are flopped over have already got most of their capacity taken up. To choose to plough energy into dreams of systemic change is an endeavour that few people choose. If we were all to choose it then those dreams might be far closer to reality. But everyone would have to engage in balancing care for themselves, and immediate mutual aid, and care in our immediate relationships, for that energy invested in the big picture to be sustainable.
In the last few years we’ve fought an increasing number of losing battles. (…) it’s also about the feeling of having given everything for a long time and having failed. It is psychologically hard to recover from repeated, consistent failure.
How do we define our battles? What would it mean to win? If we are fighting against the tide then a realist view is to acknowledge shelter for a few fleas on the beach as a victory. When we fight something we may position ourselves with a belief that we will vanquish the thing we fight. A belief that our dream will manifest. But if we speak about what we think will happen, among ourselves, our expectations are more modest than our dreams.
We chant that Palestine should be free from the mountains to the sea. Among ourselves we hope that our contribution to the international discourse will reduce the magnitude of the atrocity that will be committed against the Palestinian people before Israel is meaningfully sanctioned by the international community. And it’s grim, to keep an awareness that the changes we affect will not match up to what we dare to dream.
What is the resistance we want? How can we keep visions of what might be possible alongside the realism that are immediate ambitions should not set us up for continuous failure.
How can we balance high expectations with realistic goals in the optimum balance for what they call ‘rapid and sustained progress’ in teaching jargon.
And we’re really creative and imaginative people, and plenty of us have begun to take our balls home. I wrote previously about preparing to go on the last big march against university fee hikes. I didn’t write about the run-ins that I had with the police, the way that I was manhandled for WALKING DOWN A STREET or the subsequent night that I spent in my friends’ arms shaking and crying. Like, disintegrated into bits. No more capacity to keep a handle on my emotions. It is frightening to feel like that and it is probably unhealthy to pursue situations that will make you feel like that again. So I, for one, have looked out alternative spaces where I can be creative and imaginative and which are in no intrinsic way radical, which are doing nothing to change the exterior situation, but which let me feel like I have sometimes felt, glimpsing the best of all possible worlds. And I’ve gotten stronger and started to cry less and to be less filled with rage.
I turned to teaching. I hoped that a single occupation that would fill my days would keep me from beating my head alternately against different systemic brick walls, whilst not daring to smash it so hard that my head would break or that I would lose my ability to paint those rules or chip away at them using other means. Teaching sucks. I didn’t know before what a 70 to 80 hours week felt like. And I am emotionally drained and torn by the conflicts between how I want it to be and how it is in the classroom. The idealism which burns me out as an activist also drains me as a teacher.
I feel like I can’t talk about burnout because I’ve never been a proper activist. I’ve never been arrested, I’ve never – well rarely – bottom lined organisational aspects. I’ve always been drawn to the shining optimism of those who can lead activism, but rarely shared it. I am too much of a realist to be a driving force. Not for the sort of activism which sets itself up to lose. But is it worth pursuing dreams which if we were to gain them we would ask – ‘did we really only ask for this? this is nothing we are still being fucked over’. I prefer to dream the big dreams. That’s not true; I prefer that the big dreams be dreamt, but I lack the personal capacity to dream of them sufficiently strongly. I try now to stay aware of the big dreams, and to conceive of whatever I am doing in terms of a spectrum of action, of a diversity of complementary tactics, and I am finding that I am drawing together my fragments of dreams in projects where I can visualise potentials more than I used to be able to.
The sense of ‘not being a proper activist’ is something I’ve been able to reconceptualise as a chosen path, rather than exclusion on the basis of personal inadequacy over the past couple of years or so. When I found people who engaged in activism who were willing and open to acknowledging the chasm between our dreams and slogans, and our realistic hopes and beliefs about our impact, I found I started being able to cry about social injustice. Acknowledging the tension between the human empathy which must drive solidarity, and the scale of global struggles, linked up the political and personal in a broader way than before.
Trying to bridge many modes of action is something I have been drawn to, from when I first engaged in activism, trying to make the edges of radical anti-capitalist identified activism, and lifestyle activism and normal people giving a shit more porous. But, it is challenging and exhausting to try to communicate concepts from one community of shared political understanding in other settings. And to do so in an open conversation, which is open to the possibility of learning something from the other person’s perspective, means that every conversation risks upsetting your schema of the world and how you are choosing to engage in politics. Holding an image of a diversity of complementary tactics helps me here. The alternative, of conceptualising a single method of action as the only effective one gives a sense of despair if this method is failing, and it turns those who choose different tactics to the same ideals and values into misguided fools or enemies.
Thank-you for writing and sharing Alice B Reckless, you brave and bright and beautiful spirit.