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Activist Burnout

September 22nd, 2008     by Catherine Hayday     Comments

While I was making brunch yesterday, I was lucky enough to catch a documentary on activism burnout that aired on CBC’s The Sunday Edition:

Our documentary in Hour Two this morning describes what happens when political activists have had too much. Too much marching, too much anger, too many grueling hours of organizational meetings. Some flame out and hit rock bottom. The life of an activist is hardly stress- free. Producer Frank Faulk wanted to find out why this happens so he talked to the activists themselves. His report in our Middle Hour, Burning Bright.

There is a player embedded in the page with the latest broadcast. Let it load and skip to 1:01:43 for the beginning of Burning Bright.

I’m impressed with the perspectives in this documentary. The participants eloquently discuss aspects of being an activist that can be unpleasant, and that we don’t often talk about. The unrealistic goals we set ourselves, and the personal fallout when we don’t achieve them. The infighting. The anger (doled out at the world and at each other). The depression.

One of the interviewees, Anaheed, with whom I strongly identified, talks about how she used to behave as an activist. Strong-willed and passionate, always having the answer, and considering herself right 99% of the time. But now she feels like that time was characterized by a lack of patience, humility, and compassion.

I struggle with finding the balance in my own life. How to make the ethical choice, and how to stand up for what I believe in, but also how to do those things in sustainable ways. Out of the tidy order of the theoretical, down in the grind of making it work in practice, I have made compromises.

And that used to feel like something shameful. Shame that was partly self-inflicted (see: perfectionism issues), and partly from the external pressure to be __ enough. Vegetarian enough, eco-friendly enough, feminist enough, socially-responsible enough. If I let that sexist comment slide because I’m just too tired, if I didn’t insist on fair-trade coffee, if I don’t ask where something was made, and make my decision based on the answer.

In Burning Bright, they speak about how even relatively simple forms of activism can be emotionally stressful. The longer I struggle with finding the balance, the more I realize how valuable those compromises have been. Because they’ve been what enable me to, big picture, accomplish more. Perfectionism can sabotage progress. It’s too easy to get hung up over checking off every box every time. Flagellating ourselves and others for not being our idea of the perfect feminist, the perfect woman, the perfect activist.

I now work to keep a healthy fear of my own arrogance, that I have the one and only answer, or that my perspectives will never change. And that’s not easy for me. As my calm and reasonable self operates in tension with my inclinations to be a hugely judgmental, quick-tempered piece-of-work.

I had a professor in university who taught Environmental Ethics. One class he commented on how, as a vegetarian, he would frequently field snarky criticisms by people trying to catch him out. Who would cheerily point out that his belt or shoes were made of leather. His reply was essentially that while they were right, that of course there was more he could do, that didn’t take away from what he was doing.

The paralysis of perfection can quickly lead to people becoming disenchanted non-participators. You’re not a failure if you can’t do everything “perfect” all the time, you’re just human. Cutting ourselves a little slack is sometimes all I/we/you need to keep trying to Make It Better for many years to come.

Here’s to the long haul.

Tags: activist report

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