As a community of people rooted in compassion, in a world of seemingly endless causes, how do we possibly manage to focus our time, energy and resources to effectively make a change without completely burning ourselves out? This service, we’ll talk about Activism Fatigue and how to deal with the overwhelm.
In an attempt to beat my lifelong identity as a professional procrastinator, I very uncharacteristically started writing this particular sermon a few months ago instead of a few nights before like I usually do.
Activism or compassion fatigue is something I personally, as well as many people around me have struggled with for as long as I can remember (even if we didn’t have words to identify the feeling at the time) but I’ve watched its cycles of burnout quickly increase to what feels like warp speed in the last few years. So when I saw the poem from our reading performed a while back, it stopped me dead in my tracks and knew it was time to start writing. Something about its verses deeply resonated with how I had been feeling for so long. It was like someone had reached into my head and performed my own constant personal inner monologue; the internal overwhelm and conflict finally spilling out and being spoken into existence.
There’s Always Something New
Turns out, this was not the ideal sermon to begin writing far in advance. Each week that passed pushed my news references further and further toward irrelevance and in just a few short months, this poem managed to fall so far behind today’s current major events. I’ll be the first to admit there were a few topics on there that I had already completely forgotten about despite passionately advocating awareness for them just a few short months ago.
In just the first three months of 2022, it feels like the world has managed to churn out enough major life events to write 10 more verses and then some.
Can you say gay in Florida?
Will NATO close Ukrainian skies?
Did Kanye take his meds today?
How many times will the arctic temps reach unexpected highs?
I imagine a lot of us have thought in the last 3 years, “I’m tired of living through unprecedented times, can we just have some good old fashioned precedented times for a little while?” And while we can debate over whether or not we’re actually going through more “once in a lifetime, unprecedented events” now over any other period in time, what is true is that we are inarguably more informed and aware of the existence of these events than at any other time in our known history. Not even 40 years ago, we existed in a world without the internet, where your average person most likely was not aware of everything happening in their own state – let alone across the world. Whereas today, I’m watching a war, halfway across the planet, from multiple vantage points on the phone in my pocket. The constant stream of information and input is incomparable to generations past. And while I think this can be a tool used for immense good and global connection, the general population has been rapidly thrust into this level of awareness without any real understanding of the consequences, or how to process so much, very often intense and negative information. And for compassionate people who center themselves around social justice and activism this overload of causes can quickly spiral out of control.
A New War
A little over a month ago on Feb. 24th, like many people, I sat up in bed, glued to the TV as Putin coldly declared war. I cried in absolute overwhelm and disbelief as I watched the first of many bombs drop on the entirely innocent people of Ukraine. I spent the next week completely consumed with grief, learning as much information as possible about the situation, as I watched the war unfold in real time, desperately trying to figure out what I could do to help. I found it nearly impossible to concentrate on work and day to day normal life and lasted about a week before reaching absolute burnout. A new personal record.
As I began to come out of this particular activism obsession, I remembered going through something similar 6 months ago when the US left Afghanistan and again 3 months before that during the Israeli-Palestine conflict and then 4 months before that as we watched the January 6th insurrection unfold and so on so forth with countless other issues sprinkled in between as far back as I could remember. Cycle after cycle of awareness, action, stress and shutdown, with no real solutions or difference made.
And like a perfect echo chamber of the online activism world, through all of this, I repeatedly found myself frustrated and in arguments with family and friends for not being involved enough in the causes I deemed most important. For not being up to date on every single world event or social injustice. During the BLM protests in 2020 I spent an afternoon self righteously crafting a ruthlessly critical text to my parents for not speaking up or being involved in the movement…only to find out a few hours later that they had already made plans in their incredibly busy schedule to attend protests that very evening.
I had wasted an entire day fighting the people who were on my side and invested in the same causes as me. Instead of getting anything done, I was criticizing and fighting my own allies for not living up to the impossible standards I had set for myself. Ultimately leaving a bad taste in their mouth for ever being involved in activism again. And this is something that I see happening constantly in online spaces, in the activism world in general and even within our own church.
We Can’t Do Everything
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t expect a surgeon to know how to bake a perfect loaf of bread or an accountant to know how to build a car or a music teacher to run a garbage route or a mailman to design a rocket ship…so why do we expect this level of overarching expertise and knowledge in spaces of activism? It’s incredibly unrealistic for us to expect ourselves and everyone around us to understand the complicated intricacies of everything from foreign policy, chemical weapons and war crimes to arctic weather patterns, food deserts and oil pipelines all while maintaining a job, family and any semblance of inner peace.
Activism fatigue is a close sister to the burnout you might feel at work or in school. It starts, as many tasks do, with the passionate workaholic honeymoon phase, followed by unabating intense stress, physical and emotional exhaustion and eventually numbness and apathy. But what makes activism fatigue that much more overwhelming than traditional burnout is that activists’ work is often deeply tied to identity, injustice and even personal oppression. In today’s climate, the political has become personal, so the weight of our work is a constant stressor that can not be lifted without our liberation.
This pressure combined with the current relentless and unrealistic expectations of absolute selflessness, martyrdom and unfettered loyalty within activist spaces make burnout nearly inevitable. And as I mentioned before, While I think the widespread awareness that’s been achieved via social media is essential to being a more informed member of our global society, because how can we create change if we don’t know what needs changing?
When I look back on my life and honestly ask myself…what have I tangibly changed after years of calling myself a social justice activist…the answer is, not a whole lot. While my level of burnout suggested I should have solved all the worlds issues by now, when I looked at the community around me nothing had actually gotten done, because I was so burnt out from just the sheer number of things to fix, that I hadn’t stopped to focus on one for long enough to actually fix it. Or allowed the people around me to do the same.
We can’t all be focused on all of the same issues, in the same way, 24/7. Think about your own body – We can easily point to the brain and say “okay, that’s the most important thing, without the brain, nothing else will know what to do and we’ll die” …but without the heart the brain would never receive the blood necessary to know what to do and without the lungs the heart wouldn’t have useful oxygenated blood to even pump to the brain and without your mouth and digestive system you wouldn’t have the energy necessary to do any of these things on and on until you’re down to the smallest cell, every single part was critically necessary to maintain a functioning body. No cell is inherently more important than the rest. But not every cell is equipped to tackle every function and if it tried to, we’d have a lot of very overworked, very confused cells that are not getting much of anything done.
Our communities function just the same. We have a myriad of problems and a myriad of people with different capabilities of dealing with them. And expecting everyone to be capable of taking on and understanding every single one of them creates an unproductive and sometimes dangerous space where people are too afraid to admit they don’t know enough about a subject so they choose instead to just not get involved at all, or fall victim to spreading misinformation. These impossible standards that we hold ourselves to, while simultaneously being inundated with cause after cause is killing our activism efforts before they can even begin.
Find Your Space
So, what exactly should we be doing to make actually impactful change without completely burning ourselves out? If anyone has an answer to this…I’m all ears. Because I’m not sure I or anyone else has the right answer. I believe it’s a complicated issue to address because I think the answer looks a little different to everyone. And may even look different to you during varying stages in your life. But I believe the first and most important thing is realizing your top priority needs to be you and your own wellbeing. It’s a metaphor we’re all familiar with: you can’t give from an empty cup, no matter how hard you try. If you haven’t dealt with and addressed your own needs, you are not going to be functionally productive in spaces of activism…at least not for very long. And while I know this mindset feels inherently selfish, in the long run it’s going to allow you to be far more impactful with your time and energy.
So give yourself permission to unplug and let things go. It’s okay to be made aware of a problem, make the space to acknowledge it, educate yourself if necessary and move on from it. And even more importantly…allow other people to do the same. And once you are in a space to give from your cup, allow yourself to pick just one thing to focus on if that’s all you have the bandwidth for. Take a step back from the big picture of fixing the entire world and instead, focus inward toward yourself and your immediate community.
If I set out to intricately sew all 7.8 billion unique squares on the worlds largest, never-ending and most complicated quilt…we’re not going to have a functioning quilt. Not just because I don’t know how to sew, but because it’s physically impossible for one person to tackle or even comprehend a task so large. Instead, I’m going to stare at a giant pile of fabric and thread and get so overwhelmed at all the different sections that need tending to that I won’t ever actually sew any squares, and instead I’ll just throw on the old tattered sweatshirt I’ve always had that’s not great but at least keeps myself warm.
But if each person focused their energy and expertise on their own square, and then a few people from each community focused on bringing those squares together and then a few more people brought those larger pieces together, eventually we’d probably end up with a pretty spectacular quilt. So choose your cause and seek out the best way for you personally to contribute and respect the ways that other people do the same, even if their form of activism doesn’t look like yours.
I learned very quickly that physical protests were not going to be where I could make an impact. I was not gifted with a body built for weeks of enduring tear gas and rubber bullets, however, I was gifted with a voice that can. And while maybe you can’t do either of those things, maybe you’re instead a wonderful teacher, or artist or caregiver. Maybe you can grow a community garden or donate your time or money to your church.
My point is, It’s not going to be one all mighty person or one big thing that changes the world, it’s going to be lots of little things, done by lots of different people, consistently, over time. And we can’t do that, if we’re all so overwhelmed and paralyzed by trying to take on fixing the entire world that we shut down and chose apathy instead.
So allow yourself to take that massive weight off your shoulders and off the shoulders of those around you so that we can finally come together with our hard work, talents and compassion and weave our individual parts of the interconnected web together with each other to collectively create a world we can be proud of…without sacrificing ourselves in the process.