The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way
Today’s book salon focuses on something that I think should get a lot more attention than it does – our psychological well-being as progressive activists.
Hillary Rettig’s book, The Lifelong Activist, seeks to help us build activism sustainably into our lives. In order to do so, we’ll need to take better care of ourselves.
She starts with an aspiration and a challenge, offering this vision:
“Imagine how different the world would be if there were twice – or ten times! – as many progressive activists as there are now, and if those activists were happy and effective and enjoying long full-time or part time careers. Entire societies and cultures, and quite possibly every society and culture, would be transformed.”
The challenge quickly becomes apparent – to live fulfilling lives while promoting progressive social change. If we do not take our own personal well-being into consideration, we’ll suffer emotional burnout and grow distant from the causes we care most about. This kind of attrition is all-too-common today. And it’s something we can change.
A quick aside about myself… I am a cognitive scientist who works intimately with progressive activists – professionals and engaged citizens alike – to bring insights from research in political thought and behavior to their advocacy efforts. I work extensively with political frames and the understandings that come with them. With this in mind, I’ll make an observation about Hillary’s challenge to us that involves the way many progressives frame themselves.
A common frame that colors how we view activism is the Heroic Sacrifice Frame. It tells us that there is only one kind of activism, that of the zealot who puts their own wants and needs aside to give themselves fully to a bigger cause. Caring for one’s self, in this view, is a sign of weakness. One cannot be too selfish when there’s so much suffering in the world.
This frame often becomes internalized as the core of our political identities. We feel that we only have two choices – push ourselves to burnout or become a sellout and give up. In truth this is a false choice. Such reasoning exists within the Heroic Activist Frame. It is not the only way possible to think of ourselves as activists.
Instead, we could (and arguably should) strive for a balanced and healthy life. Being an activist does not require us to hurt ourselves. We can nurture ourselves along with the causes we care about. And, in doing so, we also become more effective as activists!
This alternative perspective makes sense through the Life Well-Lived Frame, which promotes the understanding that activism arises naturally as part of living a good life. At the center of this perspective is an authenticity of personal values in one’s life path. It can be captured by Gandhi’s call to be the change you seek to see in the world. Only when we exemplify progressive sentiments about personal fulfillment and well-being in our own lives can we share this desired condition with others.
The feelings we have about our struggles are shaped in profound ways by the frames that give meaning to our activist experiences. Giving in to the Heroic Sacrifice Frame is like putting one’s self in the trenches day in and day out. This leads to perpetual conditions of imbalance and stress in our lives that, in a very real sense, is like the trauma experienced by the soldier who has seen grown sick from war.
There is a better way for us.
Conservatives may have more money to fuel their fight because of their ties to big corporations. But we progressives must depend upon a different kind of wealth. Our personal well-being is the life blood of our movement. We care so much for others that we owe it to them to take care of ourselves. Burn us out and we are not simply replaced by another infusion of cash (as happens with the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks of the world).
We must preserve and nurture the precious reserve of our own passion in order to advance our vision of a more progressive world.