Last quarter I wrote about why I believe the long, hard work of mass atrocity prevention is worth the struggle. While I deeply believe it is, the question how a person can sustainably spend a lifetime fighting injustice remains. How do you work in the darkest parts of the world, while still keeping your head above water? How do you not just survive, but thrive, in a realm of deep distress and pain? I’m learning how to remain committed and healthy while simultaneously making this kind of work a lifelong commitment, not just a patent, fun, short lived attempt to make the world a better place.
I’ve started watching how activists I admire persevere, slowly learning how to avoid compassion fatigue and burnout. I still have a long way to grow in this, but I’ve added a few new tools to my box this year.
A few things I’ve picked up along the way:
You can’t hold it all. Despite what my former self probably thought, as a human I do not have the capacity to hold all the pain of the world, and I shouldn’t try to. I’ve learned to be ok with not feeling the rawness of the world some days, and with purposely putting blinders up so that I can do the work before me, knowing that I possess a deeper commitment that goes beyond the feeling. Trusting that disciplined daily work goes a lot farther than spurts of intermittent passion.
Grieve Fully. Sit in the sadness, cry, and don’t try to make the feeling leave, just be in it. Our world is filled with many evils that deserve to be fully mourned. A child abducted and forced to fight deserves our tears. A young girl kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery should stop us in our tracks and keep us up at night. The inefficacy of our world systems to confront injustice should make us raise our voices once in awhile. I used to do everything I could to avoid feelings of sadness, hurt, and pain. When I saw things that made me sad or angry, I would devote all my efforts to quickly finding the silver lining. Later in life when I would worry or overreact, I realized these reactions were a deeper symptom of unprocessed grief. I’ve recently begun to accept that negative feelings are a big part of the human experience that we cannot run away from. There is no pride to be had in not expressing or experiencing negative emotions. Avoiding them will only complicate and compound their effects.
Celebrate daily, Reflect regularly. Gratitude does not come naturally for most of us. It must be practiced over and over to be learned. I can get so caught up in my to-do list, or all that is wrong in the world that I forget to stop and think about all that is GOOD in the world; the everyday people who choose to live with radical compassion and generosity, the joy of living in the time and place I do, with all the benefits my life affords, and the privilege of getting to spend my days working to bring freedom to others. I continue to make the choice to see and feel all the good that has been accomplished. Regular doses of thankfulness and celebration can go a long way in providing fuel to your fire.
Be motivated by rest, not fear. All the greatest minds of the world will tell you their most groundbreaking ideas came when they were not thinking, when their minds were still. I have become increasingly aware of how much of my work has been motivated by fear. Fear of not meeting a deadline. Fear of not doing enough. Fear of not looking good enough. I do not want this to be my norm. So I choose to take time away from my office, my to-do-list, and from worrying about how problems will be resolved.
Retreat frequently so that you can fully engage in the work. Retreat before you’ve reached the place of burnout and exhaustion. For me this looks like practicing saying “no,” not helping everyone, leaving work even if there are still items on my to-do-list, and being ok with it. Physically taking yourself from the places you spend the majority of your time can bring new inspiration and perspective. Get away, shut off your phone, and try something new.
Surround yourself with like-minded people who understand the burden you are carrying. I choose to surround myself with those who look for good, believe in the work I do, and aren’t afraid to think beyond themselves. When people understand you fully, you can deeply share your emotional burden. I firmly believe you become like the people you spend the most time with, so I choose to spend my time with individuals with tenacious hope for this world.