How to Keep Going
Dedicated to my friend L
Two days ago, news of Chester Bennington's death broke online. The Linkin Park singer committed suicide after reportedly struggling with substance addiction and depression. I don't have a special relationship with his music, but such a loss is devastating to me nonetheless. There's no responsible way I can write about his death right now, but I want to acknowledge it and say that I am here for you. I understand why some people decide to leave this world - it is not enough. But if you are struggling to stay, I am here. It doesn't matter if I know you or not. Please reach out to me, call 1-800-273-8255, or text CONNECT to 741741.
There is so much exhaustion and pain in the world right now, and last week a friend asked me how to stay engaged when every fresh crisis makes her want to crawl under a rock. That is a hard question, but I am going to attempt to answer it here. For starters, I hear you. I understand. I have shut down before. Last week I found myself sobbing at my desk after a client called me in crisis, and I wanted more than anything to dissociate from the experience so that I wouldn't feel his pain and my own. Every time healthcare is in the news, I think of our patients and want to scream. I have a lot of protection from my privilege, but I am tired and furious just the same. Your pain is valid, and you are not alone. That said, we need to be able to cope with it, especially if we want to engage in activism and work to make the world closer to the one that we want, the one that will be enough for us all. Here are some steps that I take to protect myself, care for my community, and continue to fight.
1. Recognize that much of this injustice has always existed, though some of us are seeing it for the first time. As adrienne maree brown said, specifically with respect to racial (in)justice and the Movement for Black Lives, "things are not getting worse. they are getting uncovered. we must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil." That injustice is not new is both discouraging and hopeful; yes, it is terrible that our history and present are violent, but the more people who open their eyes, the better we can fight oppression. If you are newly awakened, I implore you to recognize that it is a privilege to have remained beneath the blinders for so long. It means no one ripped them off you violently. Do not feel ashamed, however, as there is no time for the deadening effect of shame here. It will slow you down. Instead, reach out, hold on, and pull.
2. Find something you care about and focus. I am guilty of trying to do too much at once, especially when it comes to activism in the current political climate. If you're anything like me, and I think many of you are, there are many causes that are important to you. Especially living in DC, there are multiple events and actions every day. It's tempting to go to a training Monday, a meeting Tuesday, a protest Wednesday, and a reading Thursday, but you'll burn out faster than you can say "organize" if you do that. Difficult as it may be, try to hone in on one or two causes that you care about and commit to working on those. You'll work better, learn more, and have a deeper impact than if you spread yourself among three or five or ten causes. Obviously there's room for overlap - that's what intersectionality is all about - but resist the siren call of too many commitments. If you're struggling with choosing, think about what you enjoy doing and what really riles you up. Where those two things meet is where you should do your work. That passion will keep you going when you're tired.
3. Join (or create) a community. This might be my most important piece of advice. You can't do this work alone. Not only will you be ineffective, you'll get lonely really fast. The fucked-up-ness of the world is far too heavy for one person to bear, and if you try, you'll get overwhelmed and quit. A community, whether it's friends, coworkers, or fellow activists, will hold you down and lift you up when you can't go on doing the work yourself. Community will teach you, help you grow, and hold you accountable. Community is the lifeblood of activism and none of us will survive without it. Not everyone wants to talk about politics or social justice, and that's okay - but you are going to need someone who will. You can join existing communities or build your own. Part of the reason I started this blog was to start political conversations with people online and in real life because I was missing that connection. Talk to people in your life, talk to people on social media, and talk to me!
4. Just show up. Showing up is easier said than done to be sure, but sometimes you just need to get yourself out there, whatever that means. Interested in an action? Go to the training. Care about black lives? Show up to a M4BL protest. Want to learn more about an issue? Attend a webinar or a Twitter chat. Regardless of your ability or circumstances, there is room in the movement for anyone who wants to be involved. Donate your time, energy, skills, body, voice, space, equipment, or money, and if you have nothing to give, that's okay. Sometimes we overthink activism and engagement. You don't need to be ready to lead or discuss the finer points of extremely complex issues; you just need to be there and be willing to put in the work to educate yourself. Show up when you can, how you can, and make sure you don't shame others if they can't, especially if that shame is ableist or classist. Get out there, learn, do your best, and be gentle with yourself and others.
5. Reject disposability. We cannot afford to treat ourselves or others as disposable. This doesn't mean you have to remain open to arguments rooted in oppression, but it does mean that we should try to call each other in rather than call each other out, as much as we can. We need everyone we can get in the fights against white supremacy, patriarchy, cissexism, heterosexism, Islamophobia, ableism, classism, police brutality and mass incarceration, animal cruelty...the list is long and so is the number of people we'll need to do work effectively. Abusive or toxic behavior has no place in political engagement, but it's important to address the behavior without condemning the entire person. If abuse is a pattern, that's a different story, but many people are able to correct themselves and contribute positively if given the opportunity. Similarly, take care of yourself, and don't treat your wellbeing as secondary to your activism. Violence, injustice, and oppression have existed for millennia, and will certainly be around for our entire lives. Better to go slowly and nurture a lifelong activist practice than to attempt superhuman feats and burn out in six months. Take breaks when you need to do so, and create the space for others to do the same.
So, there are my five best tips for how stay involved when you just want to hide, run away, or shut down. These are tailored to activism and political engagement, obviously, but they're universally applicable suggestions. Everyone needs community, self-care, and support. "Just show up" has been my motto for some time, well before I started doing activism. We can reject disposability at work, among our friends, and in public spaces. Maintaining historical perspective is helpful in all situations. Most importantly, know that you matter, whether or not you're able to keep going right now.