“Activism is the rent I pay for living on the planet.” -Alice Walker
This is a concept that has guided my life for many years now. I’ve volunteered with church groups, youth initiatives, hurricane relief efforts, LGBTQ advocacy groups, and programs for children and adults with developmental disabilities. I’ve also answered suicide hotlines, rape crisis hotlines, and facilitated support groups for survivors of rape and childhood sexual abuse. Wherever someone is, that’s where I’m willing to meet them, and I feel that my own life (and own understanding of the world) are enriched by connecting authentically with people in the darkness as well as the light.
Everyone has their limits, though, and my ability to dive into the depths with those who reach out to me does not mean I am without limits. In order to willingly go there with others, I need to make sure I’m doing the emotional and spiritual work on myself to keep myself healthy so I don’t absorb the problems of others. In order to recover from vicarious exposure to traumatic experiences, I need to carve out time for self-care, which for me includes reading, bubble baths, meditation, exercise, and leisure time with my family. In order to maintain the motivation and passion to continue with activist and advocacy work, I need to limit unnecessary exposure to upsetting or painful stories. It’s one thing — an ideal for me, even — to be able to walk through the darkness with another person in pain with the purpose of being a catalyst for or companion along their healing. It’s something altogether different to turn resistance to trauma into an art form without reason, or make suffering (vicarious or personal) into an ideal. I was first introduced to this concept in my early twenties by a neighbor who was a lightworker and Reiki master. When she told me she never watched television or read the newspaper “to keep from bringing negativity into [her] home,” I was surprised. How do you know what’s going on in the world if you don’t read the news? What if there are things going on that you won’t know about? What if there are things you just won’t know? For someone as addicted to information and knowledge as I’ve always been, it was hard for me to understand why someone would intentionally choose not to know what is happening in the world. How can you do something to help change the world if you do not first learn what issues need attention?
Here’s the thing, though. If I am traveling on a long journey in my car, I can’t just jump in and go. I’m going to have to stop every now and then to refuel, to change the oil, for a tune-up or tire rotation. I’m going to have to give myself time to rest now and then so I’ll be an alert and responsive driver, and I’m probably going to have to occasionally tag-team and let another driver take the wheel for shifts so that I can regroup, refocus, and rest. Long journeys like those toward social change and cultural healing take time, and long-term dedication requires long-term planning. Most of us don’t have the stamina and focus to stick with a passionate issue for years on end without breaks, and the few that do have likely worked significant elements of self-care and self-healing into their daily lives.
In her 2011 TED talk, Joan Halifax mentioned moral outrage as an enemy of compassion. And truly, there are situations that are morally reprehensible, that harm children and innocents, that corrupt the meaning of love, that impede healing, and that cause deep wounds and scars upon the souls of individuals and peoples. For me, the truth of Halifax’s assertion is in the word outrage. When I acknowledge the deep suffering and violence in the world, I accept its existence in a way that allows me to choose how I will direct my healing energy. When I am outraged by suffering and violence, I have already spent energy in my emotional reaction to an event even before I have considered any role I may have in healing and effecting change.
Having come across this TED talk during a time when I was already pondering the balance between activism and inner peace, I was grateful when a friend suggested I also listen to Halifax’s recent interview with Krista Tippett for the On Being radio show. In this interview, Halifax discusses moral distress as experiencing deep empathy for those things we can’t do anything about. Interestingly, Halifax referred to studies in which Tibetan meditators were able to feel empathy for others much more deeply and sorrowfully than the average individual but were also able to let go of it more easily. She attributes this to an enhanced ability to distinguish self from other — those with the grounding of meditation and enhanced feeling of deep compassion still feel the resonance of vicarious suffering, but have a keen awareness that they are not a part of the other person’s suffering.
All of these reflections bring up two insights for me:
1) Activism, though essential to effecting social and cultural change, is only one form of paying your “rent” on the planet. Healing practice and prayer work (provided you aren’t using them as excuses to avoid the realities of the world) can be contributions to the greater good. Working on yourself and maintaining a personal growth program can contribute to the greater good, and are particularly essential when you need to rebuild yourself for another round of activism or healing. Everyday steps to change how you live — recycling, for example, or gardening, cycling to work, or speaking out one-on-one against bullying or bigotry — can be important factors in cultural shifts, both practically and symbolically.
The truth about how we as individuals effect environmental, cultural, and social change may be best illustrated with the concept of cycle. Each of us has different gifts, strengths, and challenges at different times in our lives. Someone who has worked directly with survivors of sexual assault might need to shift to a more theoretical area of advocacy for a time after a personal, triggering experience. Someone who has had a public role in activism and advocacy may choose to take a more private role after going through a rough personal challenge. Sometimes we may burn out on one area of activism and advocacy, but find new energy to give in a different area. Sometimes our work is focused more on the outer, and other times more on the inner. Shifting from a more outer role to focus on inner healing doesn’t make you a bad activist; it makes you a human experiencing and embracing cycle. Shifting from a more political approach to social activism to a more prayer and healing based approach doesn’t make you a bad activist; it makes you a human experiencing and embracing cycle, and using the gifts you find in abundance at any one point in time. Likewise, shifting from a more prayer and healing based approach to a more political approach doesn’t make you less spiritual as a person; it makes you a human experiencing and embracing cycle, working with the gifts you now find in abundance in your life.
2) Discomfort experienced with purpose (or finding meaning in past traumas) can be a part of compassionate change; we don’t need to intentionally expose ourselves to meaningless negativity, pain, and heartache to be compassionate. Sometimes we will experience sadness and pain that is out of our control, and when that happens we need to allow ourselves space to feel what we feel, to grieve, to rage, and to be real. When it comes to intentional exposure to pain, we must evaluate our choices against a few simple principles. First of all, do we currently have the capacity to work through this pain? No matter how well-intentioned we may be, we do ourselves and others no favors when we willingly walk into pain we cannot currently handle. If we’re feeling sickly or temporarily run down, emotionally overwhelmed, distracted by personal problems, or otherwise not emotionally balanced, we run the risk of hurting ourselves and giving bad advice or establishing unhealthy dependencies with others when we dive into their pain. There’s no shame in acknowledging that now is not the time for us to advocate in the darkness, or in waiting until we’re in a better headspace to do our activism and healing. This isn’t a sign of inadequacy or failure as a healer; it’s a sign of maturity and strength.
Second, is our experiencing this pain going to help us someone else avoid trauma or heal from pain? If we know that reading a tragic news article will do nothing to effect change, but will certainly leave us weepy and troubled for a period of time, we can choose not to read it. If we know that someone is only telling us their traumas to create drama or get a shocked reaction, we can politely bow out of the conversation. If, however, we have an opportunity to grow our awareness of an issue, learn so that we can better advocate, or help another process trauma and heal from it, then we can choose to enter into that relationship knowingly, and with the specified intent of helping to make the world (and the lives of those in it) better. In choosing to stop giving our emotional energy to those situations that would sap our reserves, we build a better supply of healthy emotional energy that we can later use for our chosen purposes, whether they are personal growth and self help, lightwork for the healing of the earth and her people, or political activism for social and cultural change.
Ultimately, how we choose to direct our energies is a personal decision. If you find that you derive some benefit from reading tragic news stories, listening to sorrowful people, or feeling angry about injustice, carry on. If what you’re currently doing is working for you, keep doing it! But if you have found your efforts at healing and activism sabotaged by burnout, moral distress, or “compassion fatigue,” it might be time to start exploring the role of balance in spiritual, personal, and advocacy practice. For me, I choose balance. I welcome the different phases in the cycle of my journey with life.