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Self-care is subversive

BurnoutBurnout is way too common among activists, but if you want to change the world, you have to take care of yourself – and not feel guilty about it, writes Tiara the Merch Girl.

13 December 2010


the systems of oppression thrive on our denial of our needs
sayingmynevers, in response to this picture

It was mid August 2008. I was in a room with at least 100 other young people, all of us deemed Brightest Young Minds, having spent close to a week of eager discussions and project planning for different ways to make a difference in the world.

The whole time I was there, I felt like a fraud.

Two weeks earlier, a huge year-long undertaking to get to the School of my Dreams imploded into a nightmare, and I felt drained of the passion imbuded by my fellow conference-goers. They felt they could create change; I felt ready to give up.

There was a slideshow of quotes preceding that morning’s meeting. One of them was from Gandhi, and I can’t seem to find the exact words now, but it was along the lines of these: “The day you feel like you can’t change the world is the day you begin to die.”

I knew then that I had begun to die.

It took me till the beginning of next year – including a ritual “funeral” hosted by my Pagan friends, a temporary breakup, and lots of angst over whether I would stay in Australia or go back to Malaysia post university – to get my groove back.

A series of chance opportunities, sparked by volunteering at the Woodford Folk Festival and leading to a role in the Vagina Monologues, brought me to my new (and current) path: performance art and production. It was a fulfillment of long-repressed dreams, it was fun and silly, and it was for me.

Within those months I had gone from tireless social-enterprising activist campaigning for change in Malaysias education system, to a sexually-aware yet still political stage performer. My inner activist is still there, loud and proud, but I had to change my methods. I was burnt out.

Sitting amongst the other Bright Young Minds, I marvelled at their enthusiasm and passion for making life better for people much unlike themselves – single mothers in Ghana, recent refugee migrants, even corporates wanting to do good in the world.

But none of them talked about supporting themselves, of trying to save themselves while saving the world.

Indeed, what I commonly noticed amongst my activist and social justice friends is a strong tendency to put themselves last, to count any sort of self-care as selfish and indulgent. People are dying, suffering, lacking access to basic needs; what right did us relatively privileged people have to partake in something as frivolous as a day off? The world is more important, the community is more important, the Earth is more important – we can always rest when we’re dead.

But is it really indulgent to make sure we’re alive and thriving so that we can continue doing important work for the world?

If we don’t have enough strength, energy, or health to keep going, how will we be of any use to the social justice movement?

We ourselves are part of the society we’re seeking justice for. We’re not separate from it, working on an angelic or otherworldly plane, immune to the problems of the world. Supporting society’s effort to improve themselves also means supporting ourselves – making ourselves important.

New Tactic’s brilliant discussion on the importance of self-care amongst activists included a repost of a letter by Canadian activist Tooker, who sadly took his life in 2002 soon after writing this letter. The letter came after he felt like he “hit a wall”, having worked tirelessly in environmental justice for many years.

It's honourable to work to change the world, but do it in balance with other things. Explore and embrace the things you love to do, and you'll be energetic and enthusiastic about the activism. Don't drop hobbies or enjoyments. Be sure to hike and dance and sing. Keeping your spirit alive and healthy is fundamental if you are to keep going.

If you start slipping into the hole of depression and you notice yourself losing enthusiasm and becoming deeply disenchanted, take a break and talk with a friend about it. Don't ignore it. The world needs all the concerned people it can get. If you can stay in the struggle for the long haul you can make a real positive contribution, and live to witness the next victory!

Self-care doesn’t have to mean thousands of dollars spent on a luxury island with underpaid labourers catering to your every need. It doesn’t have to mean buying into consumerist, un-fair-trade, human-rights-abusing culture. It doesn’t have to mean denying our privilege, or taking advantage of anyone else.

It can mean a visit to a local spa – which historically, in places like Russia and Finland, were daily rituals for the working-class and were very important to personal care and hygiene as well as key in community-building.

It can mean a house dinner with your friends and loved ones, each contributing a plate, talking about other things besides the ills of the world – even fluffy thoughts like current crushes or the smell of roses.

It can mean walking through a rose garden in the city and taking note of their scent for the dinner party later.

It can mean heading to the library or second-hand bookstore for some light reading – not necessarily another academic tome on your chosen social justice issue, but something easier on the soul, still nourishing, like poetry or memoir.

It can mean putting paint to canvas, moving body to music, words to paper, cutting pictures out of magazine to make a collage of your dreams.

It can mean cuddling a cat or running around with a dog.

It can mean letting someone else feed you, clothe you, hold you, with their full and utmost desire –  there are plenty of people out there (especially family and loved ones) who would be more than happy to let you rest in their arms.

It can mean just stopping and resting for a day, letting the earth make one rotation around the sun without us needing to say a word.

This is especially important to know for people who fight within and for the margins, those who feel that voices like theirs are constantly shut down and that they have to keep shouting or else they’ll never be heard.

Many of us were brought up in cultures where self-care was considered selfish and indulgent, that we were meant to put others first and us last. But if we don’t take the time to pause and rest our voices, eventually we’ll get too hoarse or weary to speak – and then our voices will disappear anyway. And the oppressive forces we fight against will win out, because they have more resources to care for themselves, because they have no qualms in putting themselves first and foremost.

Those of us working within social justice, whether directly or indirectly, need to build better support mechanisms for ourselves to unwind, relax, be ourselves. Our identities and spirits are more than just the causes we fight for.

Even warriors recuperate. Let’s us band together to find socially-aware ways to support each other and care for each other, making ourselves an important part of the social justice process, being able to honour each other’s desire for rest and reprieve – instead of berating them for not working hard enough, for daring to stop, for not keeping on.

Social justice is a marathon, and without the occasional water break we’d collapse before the finish line.

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare. - Audre Lorde

Self care resources:

Combating Activist Burnout: Our stories of radicalization

Self-Care Assessment (from University of Ballarat)

Preventing Burnout

A List Apart: Burnout

Self-Care and Self-Defense Manual for Feminist Activists

New Tactics: Self-Care for Activists

The Change Agency: Activist Self-Care

World Pulse: What's the Point of the Revolution if We Can't Dance

Tiara the Merch Girl is associate editor with The Scavenger.

Image with text: source unknown.

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