Sustainable activism: 4 key distinctions

An outdoor scene featuring protesters with their fists raised in the air. Text appears that reads, "Sustainable Activism: 4 Key Distinctions."
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May is mental health awareness month, and last week I presented six guiding questions for increasing our understanding of the link between mental health and activism. In order to promote the adoption of a more sustainable form of activism for the 21st century, this week I’m going to talk about what can happen when as change makers we neglect our mental health.

The short answer is burnout and ultimately failure in our activist efforts. When we neglect our own needs, we limit our capacity to do hard things, and changing the world is the hardest thing we’ve ever tried to do. Not only do we limit our own potential when we neglect our mental health, but we inevitably reduce the effectiveness of the other activists we are working with, because our reactions to our own unheeded pain create ripple effects that impact everyone around us.

Since my number one value is love, it helps me to look at the situation described in the previous paragraph through the lens of universal love. For me, the only kind of love worth considering is a love that manifests as a relationship with life as a whole. Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving states that love is an activity that includes four basic elements: care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. If love is a relationship with life, and life is a relationship with needs, then it follows that love is an informed choice to respond with care to the needs of any sovereign being.

Now, on the surface, that definition of love might sound like a recipe for burnout rather than sustainable activism. If I leave my house everyday with the intention to respond to the needs of all sovereign beings I encounter, I will quickly discover the limits to my capacity to meet others’ needs. Living as I do on stolen Ohlone land in what is commonly called Oakland, California, I can’t leave my house without seeing great need among the sizable houseless population in my neighborhood. But this can only discourage me from embracing a loving approach to life if I fail to keep in mind the following four key distinctions.

1. Responsibility 

Fromm defines responsibility as our ability to respond voluntarily to a need. Sadhguru, in drawing a distinction between responding and acting, states that our ability to respond is limitless, even if our ability to act is not. There is no situation which we cannot respond to from choice, even if that choice is to do nothing.

2. Care

In describing the basic element of care, Fromm defines love as “the active concern for the life and the growth of that which we love.” Active concern implies both action and a state of mind or intention (of fulfilling a need). So how can I sustainably and consistently respond with active concern to the needs of people in my community given the natural limitations of my material, emotional, and energetic resources? By remembering the final two key distinctions.

3. Your worth

First, remember that you, too, are a member of your community whose needs matter, and whose life and health matters to the larger community. Therefore, your capacity for sustainable activism is an asset to those around you. It is indeed admirable when someone chooses to neglect their own needs in order to care for someone else. We all make this choice from time to time, often for family or close friends, but that is because our family and friends are often a closer approximation to the type of community that values interdependence than is our wider society. While we might not be thinking in terms of quid pro quo when we agree to watch our friend’s child while she runs an errand, we don’t have to, because if the friendship is a healthy one, then we already feel secure that when we need help, our friend will be there. So it is perfectly acceptable and right to gauge our own needs and resources before committing to a specific type of care for another person. Which brings me to the second truth.

4. No help is too small

Second, remember that the definition of “active concern” does not include a minimum required amount, or specific type of action. Just because you cannot take a houseless person into your home, feed them, clothe them, give them medical treatment, and help them find a job, that does not mean that you can’t do anything to help. Maybe one day you can give them money, another day you can give them food, another day you can smile at them and say hi or wish them well. Who knows! Maybe the most you can do one day is recommit to doing the work of healing our society so that we no longer treat people with such disregard. At the very least, a commitment to sustainable activism can help you keep your heart open to them, because the fear of burnout is gone. If active concern does have a minimum requirement, it is surely that.

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Nauser Bear is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California (LMFT#123099; licensed with the BBS as Nicholas Jon Reynolds). To work with Nauser, send an email to nauserbeartherapy@gmail.com, call (510) 394-5373, or schedule a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.

Disclaimer: This blog and comments on it do not constitute medical or mental health advice. If you are in need of support and live in California, contact me to set up a consult to see if working together is a fit. Otherwise, seek mental health support in your area. If you are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is available 24/7, at 800-273-8255.

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