There’s been a big discussion about “burnout” among activists lately. The people I’ve been hearing from use that word to mean many different things: physical maladies of overwork; depression, a sense of futility—or at least a pervading doubt that one’s efforts matter. Exhaustion, emotional and intellectual.
Some of the discussants are immersed in high-pressure races to a finish line that may be elusive (think presidential campaign organizers). Others have been at their work for a very long time and fear they have little impact to show for it. Some start to fatigue at the relentlessness of it: always a crisis, always a deadline, always an urgent need to do something. They are young and old. They see their individual and collective challenges as amplified by the obstacles society places in their way: working long hours for a cause one holds dear can stress anyone; if you are also coping with the social injuries inflicted on account of race, gender, class, immigration status, sexual orientation—the stress amps up.
I wouldn’t say that burnout is my problem at the moment: I’m not forcing myself to keep on, rather pursuing aims I have chosen and choose still. I’m not exhausted, just a bit tired. But just under the surface of my days runs a red thread of desperation that sometimes loops up to catch my spirit.
What tugs on me? Most frequently, a constellation of feelings about aging. God willing, my health and strength will hold, my brain will stay sharp, and I will have many more years to explore the questions and experiment with the answers that draw me close. But more than at any prior time, I am aware that life is finite, that in choosing to devote myself to this, I may foreclose that, simply because there isn’t enough time to do both. I am not in burnout, but I can see that if I don’t find a way to hold this differently, I could eventually land there.
I think about it a lot. What are the moving pieces? Sometimes my brain holds its own little magical-thinking festival, where it rains money. If I won the lottery, I’d spend some if my winnings supporting other people to do the tasks that don’t engage my passion or pleasure. I would have time to write and do the parts of my activism that seem especially well-suited to my skills and desires. It’s not just me. If the movement—by which I mean the aggregate of all the people and organizations working in this country for social and environmental justice—were adequately funded, there would be more people to share the work and everyone would have at least the opportunity for balance. Instead, most of us constitute a force driven by imbalance: fueled by self-sacrifice, addicted to doing at all costs, living with the perpetual sense of having fallen short of what’s needed, what’s possible. If money equals time, my imagination tells me we’d be positively wallowing in all of those things I am craving: reflection without a deadline, listening without an agenda, belonging without a struggle. Rest.
When my inner magical-thinking festival takes an intermission, my spirits start to sink. I compare actually existing circumstances to my fantasies, and then I worry about what I don’t want to become, which is a blister of regret, perpetually about to burst.
Of course, the only moving piece I actually control is not the lottery, not the clock, but the story I tell myself about myself.
The story I have fallen into telling myself about myself features quite a few negative, critical, and pessimistic elements. How do I change this moving piece of my world? When my brain isn’t hosting its magical-thinking festival, a wise woman sometimes emerges from the shadows to offer advice. She tells me I am my own worst enemy:
Stop seeking proof that your work will save the world, she says. You’re torturing yourself with something that—despite the magical thinking of the data-crunchers—you can never ever get.
Unless you focus entirely on short-term achievable, measurable aims, you really can’t know the impact of your work. Yes, you can compile anecdotal evidence. Yes, you can do all kinds of surveying and interviewing and elicit all kinds of response. And the things you hear may feel good. But if you have a large and encompassing aim—as is true for so many of us who have devoted our lives to awakening conscience, inspiring healing action, urging us toward a world of justice tempered by love—you just can’t know if the passage of a particular piece of legislation or the successful mounting of a particular mass demonstration or absolutely anything else is going tip the scales. After all, the wise woman says, the welfare system so many of us now agree is more often humiliating and ineffective than helpful was designed by mostly progressive people trying to solve a problem. Ditto our treatment of the mentally ill. Our system of public education. And so on. The law of unintended consequence, she tells me, is never broken. If the work becomes meaningless or debilitating without some kind of proof, the wise woman counsels seeking a different way to work that supplies satisfactions in process more than ultimate outcome.
Give yourself a break, bubbele. It’s a long haul. Nourish yourself for the journey.
It’s not only the wise woman: every spiritual tradition says this. “It is not given you to complete the task, but neither may you desist from it.” (Pirke Avot 2:21) Buddhism counsels non-attachment to the idea of doing good just as to other notions, and Buddha is frequently quoted as saying this: “A jug fills drop by drop.” The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Han said this in a 1997 dharma talk:
Many of us are motivated by the desire to do something for social change, for restoring social justice. But many of us get frustrated after a period of time because we don’t know how to take care of ourselves. We think that the evil is only in the other side, but we know that the evil is within us. Craving, anger, delusion, jealousy—they are in us. If we don’t know how to take care of them, to reduce their importance, to help the positive qualities in us grow, we would not be able to continue our work, and we’ll be discouraged very soon, overwhelmed by despair. There are many groups of young people who are strongly motivated by the desire for social action, but because they don’t know how to take good care of themselves, they don’t know how to live and work with harmony among themselves, they give up the struggle after some time.
In a discussion on burnout on a list I take part in, someone wrote this: “Abraham Lincoln was friends and political allies with John Addams, who was Jane Addams father. She started Hull House, the first settlement house, in Chicago. Myles Horton, the founder of the Highlander Folk School, was befriended by Addams as a college student and strongly influenced by her approach to social justice work with the poor. At Highlander, Horton trained people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King—who influence all of us to this day. From Lincoln to King, the baton was passed.”
Is it a form of hubris that looks at such histories and says we can get it done in a handful of years? The wise woman tells me that in myself, it is. “Rest, reflect, listen.” The wise woman regularly reminds me that I am very bad at resting, and she’s right.
Pain and pleasure, wrong and right, infuse every moment of this world. If you habitually look at one side of this duality and ignore or downplay the other, the wise woman tells me, you will stay out of balance.
She’s right. I am out of balance, I admit it. My life is replete with beautiful things (knock wood): love, friendship, belonging, health, energy, desire. I see that I keep glossing over the opportunities they afford for pleasure and gratitude, instead focusing my attention on brokenness and suffering and what to do about it.
There was a brief and desperately credulous moment in my life—a moment of transition, when an old world was gone and a new one hadn’t yet come into focus—when the “law of attraction” seemed like a lifeline. For those who’ve been living on Mars for the last couple of decades, this is the name given to a philosophy grounded in the assertion that life returns to us the energies encoded in our thoughts, which have the power to control outcomes.
Like most philosophies that fall into a lucrative category (you know, download a free PDF that leads to online courses and weekend seminars), there’s a kernel of truth here. Attitude matters. If I go into an encounter expecting conflict or boredom, I am much more likely to experience either than if I see it simply as a generative opportunity, open to possibility. If I focus anticipation on what can go wrong, my anxiety mounts, filling the hours with imagined suffering; but if I consciously anticipate good experiences and outcomes, at the very least I get to relax on my way to discover what actually awaits.
Understood that way, the wise woman’s “think positive” does make sense. The trouble is, that isn’t the whole story. The idea that our thoughts create reality often slides lickety-split into the notion that people bring bad fortune on themselves. Get into a car accident? You probably forgot to visualize the safe journey before you got behind the wheel. Or perhaps you saw another driver make an unsafe move and allowed an image of possible disaster to invade your thoughts. Well, you can see where this goes: a bunch of crap about how those suffering from afflictions brought them on themselves.
The wise woman is right: I need to put my attention on the beautiful and good just as much (if not more than) on the broken and distorted.
I know from both experience and study that all of the wise woman’s words carry good advice. I offer it to all those teetering on the precipice of burnout, and all those who, like myself, have the desire to burn in, to change out our old self-punishing stories to stories more loving, accepting, and nourishing.
Now, if you have a wise woman (or man) in your head who wants to tell me what will help me take this good advice, I’d really love to hear it.
I like this version of Sly and the Family Stone’s 1973 hit, “If You Want Me to Stay” by Gregg Martinez.