Activists: on not burning out

At the heart of an activist’s drive for transformation is a set of challenges. How do I maintain balance, perspective and proportion in my campaigning and resist the temptation to demonise my perceived opponents? How do I ‘keep at it’ when the energy and focus fades away in the face of ongoing disappointments and setbacks? How do I maintain my relationships with family, partners, children and friends when I am struggling not to succumb to hopelessness, anxiety or physical exhaustion? How do I pace myself in such a way as to sustain my activism over time? In short, how do I avoid becoming another victim to stress, to burn out, or despair?

Thanks to The Climate Reality Project for this picture.

In the 1960’s a famous Christian monk, Thomas Merton, invited people to practice ‘Contemplation in a world of action’.  He, and many others too, have observed that if, as an activist, you are profoundly committed to healing the world then you need to learn to act from a quiet centre within yourself. Nurturing a silent space within your mind and heart is crucial to the activist’s own wellbeing and to being able to sustain the commitment to social justice they have made. Without such quiet and contemplative centre then burnout, illness, and political polarisation is highly likely. 

Advocates for justice and planetary healing who lack this spiritual centre in their lives will often fail to see the spiritual in others too and, to use the language of Buber, our opponent becomes an “it” rather than a “Thou”. Such a state is profoundly de-humanising to ourselves, and to those amongst whom we live. If we allow that to happen then we also profoundly betray ourselves and our cause and undermine all our best efforts and successes by becoming no better than those we challenge and oppose when they dismiss, defame or demonise us and our efforts.

As activists there are many things we carry in our toolkit, but perhaps there is none more important than meditation, contemplative prayer, and the development of a quiet centre to sustains us. Of course, this takes time. But let us not devalue or forget the divine wellspring of energy and inspiration that is our deepest reality. It cares for each of us, and for all the world.

Written by Deacon Merry Evans

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