The Activist’s Antidote: A Conversation about Depression, Hopelessness, & Burnout
By Alexandria Shaner, originally published on ZNet
We are social creatures – we like to be heard. Yet, an enduring tragedy of modern society remains that there are things more often left unsaid, in the rare occasion there is actually something to say. A heavy silence or a hurried, awkward transition takes the place of words when we can’t bring ourselves to find and voice them. As a step towards finding the words and overcoming the heaviness which hangs about so many of us these days, I would like to invite you into a conversation about the toll of dissent, and about building a better world. We could begin by examining the unsaid…
The following was originally composed as a selection of conversations with a friend in Russia, since the start of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It was never published for fear that I would be unable to fully protect my friend’s anonymity. This friend is a fellow activist and dissident, who shares my notion that as advocates for change, it isn’t sufficient to just talk about what we don’t like about the world. We should also be able to seriously address the question: “So, you don’t like (insert least favorite ism here) capitalism, authoritarianism, imperialism, sexism, racism, classism, etc – then, what DO you want?”. Carving this path, my Russian friend and I occasionally correspond over a shared interest in developing theory, vision, & strategy for a Participatory Society.
As the war broke out in February, my friend began sending me reactions, in a stream of thought style. I tried to reply to the best of my ability, as an activist who, like most of us, wavers between feeling as if I can do nothing to alter the horrors of the world, to feeling as if I can, because we must. Activism aside, as a regular person receiving outbursts of pain and frustration from a friend, I do not waiver. I know what is needed is not necessarily all the solutions, or even answers, but active listening, a perspective from outside one’s own mind, solidarity, care, someone to stand as witness. Perhaps the difference we can all make as activists actually starts here, with the very personal. The act of listening transmutes an empty shout in the dark into something shared and named, dragging it out into the light, the first step in overcoming.
My idea for this essay was to present something different from academic conjecture, or even strategic analysis. I sought to put a highly personal, human face on experience and solidarity, via my friend’s shared reflections. They were to be presented as raw as possible, having been written informally for private communication, by a person for whom English is not a mother tongue. I had hoped this format would highlight the unfiltered, collective struggles and desires of regular people, as opposed to the desires and actions of imperial and for-profit warring powers, or even of the popular opinions of various thought factions. I had also hoped it would reflect friendship, that most powerful force of human-ness.
But, like I said, this piece was never published. Though I had first gotten permission from my friend to share their words (carefully and anonymously), once it was organized, edited, and ready for publication, I knew in my gut that it didn’t feel right. Without editing and redacting down to scraps, I could not share our conversations without leaving a trail to my friend. As the weeks passed and brutal crackdowns on Russians who dared to speak out, protest, share art, and in any way express dissent increased, I was glad of my choice. Though it is worthy to give visibility and voice to on-the-ground experiences – it would have put someone else in danger unnecessarily. It would have defeated the purpose of an essay conceived to show a path to solidarity and empathy between regular people, in the face of brutal conditions. The unsaid has many barriers.
While this war and other wars rage on, in the US, we have been reckoning with the violence of yet another school shooting, yet another racially motivated mass shooting, the attacks on women’s rights, prisoner’s rights, voting rights, and on our educational freedoms. Covid, climate, fascism, food shortages, and a litany of other wrongs makes up our day to day reality, landing on some directly, and on others as a kind of noxious, insidious white noise. Since my aforementioned international exchange, I’ve continued to encounter higher than normal levels of burnout and even existential stress lately among comrades, friends, and family, closer to home. I’ll admit that I was personally stung hard, and shocked at my own emotional vulnerability, by the news of Roe being summoned up to the executioner’s block. We are all vulnerable somehow, even when we think we have made ourselves strong.
This issue of the toll of dissent, of how to keep depression, fear, and hopelessness at bay, of how to take care of each other, how to pursue fulfillment and balance as activists and people of good intent, must not remain unsaid, it must be addressed. For my friend in Russia, for my friend’s sister in Detroit, for the man I saw rubbing his forehead at the grocery store checkout line, for the struggles of those who have come before, for my new baby cousin, for you, and for me, we must not pretend we are fine. And we must not be defeated.
This essay originally aimed to: provide a constructive activist outlook for people who share anti-war and internationalist sentiments, to open the conversation about the physical, mental and emotional toll that dissidence can take, and to offer community via the sharing of experiences. Pursuing strategy often means changing tactics to suit context, so I have shifted the form of this essay in the hope of preserving the message. I will first try to mitigate your loss at not being given a chance to read the words of my anonymous friend, by offering another Russian dissident perspective reacting to war and finding reason to rebel: an English translation of Alexandra Kollontai’s 1915, Who Needs the War. Her words are timeless and her sentiments, not unlike my friend’s. I would also encourage you to just listen to someone else’s reactions, and in doing so, contribute to giving voice to experience and support to a friend.
I had hoped the story created by sharing one personal conversation would resonate with many people of varied backgrounds, and perhaps become applicable to diverse crises beyond Russia and Ukraine. Instead, I’ll offer my own reflections, inspired by and distilled through many conversations, with many people from many places, over many years. This is my way to say something in a moment when there is something to say, to offer a fist in the air, and a hand across the divides.
What can I do when activism is making me depressed/anxious/hopeless?
Firstly, if something feels wrong, it just might be wrong. Stop and think, do not be afraid to question, to listen, to pause, and reflect. This general wisdom applies to activism too. If your activities feel harmful to your wellbeing, it is okay to stop, reflect, reconsider, and shift. A diversity of thought and practice is good for movements, and natural for people. Find your own path that you can sustain. You won’t always feel like a bucket of sunshine, of course, but don’t mistake adding your own suffering for alleviating others’ suffering. Take the long view.
I’ve hit pause, ready to reassess, now what?
Look to some kind of visionary thinking as a compliment to activism addressing immediate, urgent problems. Not just because I personally advocate for Participatory Society as a worthy and viable, post-capitalist alternative, and not even just because including vision is the best, most strategic way to practice activism and make continued gains, but also because vision is the yin to the yang of activism, in a personal sense.
There is outrage and there is vision. We can hold both at once to try to stay sane, and even balanced, once we have been politically awakened. Going back to ignorance is not really an option. Once you know, you know – you will not unsee just because it’s ugly. Though we may all fantasize about walking away when it gets too much, there will always be this consciousness somewhere lurking, and festering. Stopping is not really a viable longterm solution. Taking breaks, refreshing, balancing, yes – but just cutting out your awareness of the world and ignoring that you have a preference for how it could be better, no. In fact, it is often crucial for our mental health, in the darkest moments, to engage with our activism as a defiance against the paralysis of shock. The question becomes how to manage, how to be a balanced and fulfilled human, once we become activists.
Find balance? Sounds nice… heard it before… but how?
We need to express outrage and react to the problems of right now, especially when we feel personally shaken, as I felt about the current crisis around women’s rights in the US, as my friend felt about their country’s military aggression, etc. Experiencing and acknowledging a heartfelt and sane reaction to insane conditions is a healthy way to deal with it, rather than to pretend it’s not true.
It is vital to call out injustice, to never look the other way. For movements, it is important that outrage is heard, especially from first hand accounts. However, there is also no lack of outrage concerning many, if not most, of the problems in the world. Beyond self expression, it is not something that usually needs us to continue to sacrifice ourselves, get depressed over, and become burned out.
Practice non attachment to that which no longer serves you or your cause. Give yourself permission to let go, and then act on letting go of outrage. Not ignoring it, not denying it, but expressing it, acknowledging it, and then letting it go. Don’t let outrage drain and consume you. You are allowed to also have fun, be lighthearted, and look at the world around you for its beauty and potential, as well as for its troubles. You will not let your cause down by doing so, and you might even spark joy in others.
Very simply, it’s healthy to express outrage, but not to consume it, at least not serially. We often mistake consuming outrage and even suffering for activism – it isn’t. And if it is hurting your wellbeing, take a break.
With less outrage, what will fire my activism?
Explore and engage with worthy vision. There is a scene that struck me, even as a child, in the cartoon film version of Alice in Wonderland. Alice is lost and listlessly bumbling around Wonderland when she meets the Cheshire Cat at a fork in the road. She asks him politely, which way she ought to go from here? He informs Alice that the answer to her question depends greatly on where she is heading – to which she replies that she doesn’t much care where. The cat dissolves into a wicked swirling grin as he taunts, “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go!”.
Activists sorely need to conceive and share a worthy social vision to overcome cynicism, to share strategic orientation, to guide practice and experimentation, and to retain commitment against serious opposition. We need to engage in discussion about where we want to go, why we want to get there, and how we might carve a path. Vision is for running towards something, when it is insufficient to just run away.
Once we break the habit of consuming outrage as if it is our duty, we will create space for vision. We should consistently consume vision. Outrage might get attention, but vision begets hope and is constructive. Outrage will drain you, vision will sustain you. These are general things people might say all the time, but it’s not until you are in the midst of acute, immediate crisis, that they become more true than trite.
When you have that outraged, exhausted, or even empty feeling, try to translate a disgust for the present condition into a vision for a better possibility. Connect current suffering to systems, which are human-made and changeable, not inevitable. This is the important part. This is the empowering voice you should develop and continually use. This is the magic formula and the lifeline.
How, exactly, might I start?
This part is personal, though that doesn’t mean you must discover it alone.
Sharing and talking with others is a very good thing. Developing community around wellbeing is a way to help yourself while helping others, and it can even create venues and mechanisms that remain and develop beyond your own need. Talk it out, share, listen, come together. Having fun is not frivolous, it can be mutual aid.
Little, practical changes can be pivotal. Tune in to your own daily circumstances and habits, reflect on how they are making you feel, and perhaps try adjusting something.
Don’t over consume images that eat away at you – doom scrolling, scrolling in general. Reconsider letting your feeds define your information intake.
Have good words in your ears, good music too. This can be politically themed, or totally unrelated. The environmental and sensory experiences in which we are saturated affect us, greatly.
For the activist with a heavy heart, I sometimes recommend Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, or A Paradise Built in Hell. She pursues truth with beauty, and the result was once uplifting, for me. Arundhati Roy is another writer who can use words in a way that I am able to find beauty, even joy and hope, within the most troubling realities. I had a few good laughs and was energized by reading some of the speeches in Lonnie Ray Atkinson’s recent satire, Don’t Think of a Republican. There are words out there for every taste – just have good words in your ears, consistently. They may even come from a friend.
Turn off the news for a bit. You don’t need to become an ostrich, just claim control of your intake, and occasionally step back to assess whether and how your news consumption is serving a purpose.
Music has even more diverse possibilities, so I hesitate to recommend any one tune at all – just that it is important. A song can affect your mood immediately, so curate your soundtrack to help give you what you need. Simple and powerful.
Don’t (completely) ignore your own needs: it could be a need for sleep, exercise, regular hours, ritual, daylight, good food, camaraderie, art, nature, whatever. We all over do it – but just as no one can learn for you or do push ups for you, no can sleep for you or smile for you.
Taking care of each other, and of our future, also means taking care of ourselves. I don’t necessarily mean naps and bubble baths, unless that is really important to you. I mean that it is a very human and healthy state of being to be conscious of the world around you, and to imagine how it might be better. This state of being is to be encouraged and celebrated. It is not a curse, and should not mean that we also must wallow in endless suffering, oppressing ourselves further even than the systems we fight to change. Remembering and embracing life’s authentic pleasures is not selling out, it is not a commodity for purchase, it is in fact a power that we can and must take back as we fight for a better world.
Does it even matter what I do, or how I feel?
Yes. It matters immensely. In fact, your question has been on my mind lately in the form of an unassuming image that, like a catchy tune, I can’t seem to shake. Let me explain…
I’m a sailor, a traveller. I recently visited a place I hadn’t been to in many years, so I climbed up to to the highest place to look around. Atop this view point rests an old church and community cistern. There, I saw a little printed out and hastily laminated sign stuck to the outside of the meeting hall. The scene is beautiful, but far from grand, set in a very small community of about 250 people who call the tiny Caribbean island of Mayreau their home. Mayreau is the smallest inhabited island in the Grenadines, and was once considered the poorest island in the Caribbean. Though these days it has become an increasingly popular tourist spot for people to visit by boat (the island has no airstrip), it is still very quiet, and very poor (if measured using traditional, first world economic metrics). The point being that the people of this community know what it means to confront hardship, scarcity, and to collectively manage resources: food, water, tools, care, education, etc. They have weathered hurricanes, drought, changing conditions of fisheries, influxes and disappearances of outside investment and development schemes, and now Covid. Mayreau is not some kind of utopian community, but, they are intimately aware that when things get tough, survival demands us to come together to keep going.
Back to the undecorated little sign that inspired this story – it said, simply: “I protect you, you protect me, we’re in this together”. I assume it was a reference to Covid and observing social distancing, masking, and other sanitary measures, because it was posted next to the meeting hall’s government issued plaque of a stick figure coughing with a big red X over it. If you live on a tiny island with no hospital, containing outbreaks of a virus like Covid19 takes on an even more urgent, and social consideration. That is the obvious lesson.
But why does this unassuming little sign continue to linger in my mind? What other unfinished business needs to be worked out? I protect you, you protect me, we’re in this together. I care for you, you care for me, we’re in this together. Perhaps there is a simple mantra here that we can adopt, beyond the obvious, beyond Covid, and beyond the searing heat, the increasingly dry ground, and the dwindling catches of a precarious island community. Perhaps, like a good mantra, it sums up in twelve words what I have used three thousand to try to convey: we are all sometimes in need, we are all sometimes able to give, and we are all in this together. The need could be physical, mental, or emotional, or maybe even just for someone to hear us, to witness and acknowledge our struggle. This mantra does not imply that we must all always agree or get along to become community. It allows for diversity and dissent. It is instead, a source of regenerative power – giving by receiving, and vice versa. The benefit is both in the doing, and the receiving.
To me, this mantra suggests that activism itself is not actually the cause of our fatigue, but a cure. It is my senses of perception, my eyes, ears, smell, taste, and touch who observe the world. It is my mind and my empathy who discover wrongs. It is a sense of hopelessness that is my enemy. It is a trajectory of isolation that convinces me that I am lost. It is your action, in the face of similar conditions, that inspires me. It is my action, guided by a vision for better, that rescues me. Through your activism, you bring back hope. Through my activism, I rescue myself. We participate in building community in which we rescue each other, plant the seeds of the future, and begin to live our vision, over and over again. Activism is at once personal and social, and in this way it is a regenerative process. I care for you, you care for me, we’re in this together.
Let’s keep talking.
The toll of dissent takes many forms. Longterm wellbeing is one crucially important aspect for activists, and for everyone really. I am grateful to all of you who have bravely shared your pain and frustration with me, it not only gives me a chance to be a friend, but it also gives me courage in reckoning with my own ups and downs. I hope anyone who reads this will share their own reactions, tips, and ideas, as this was always meant to be a conversation. Let’s not leave things unsaid.
I’ll leave off with a recognition that while this is an attempt to address a serious concern as a strategic activist and as a human being, I do not presume to offer a perfect solution, just to share. I get blue too, and sometimes also grumpy enough to clear a room. But I’m proud of your struggle, and everyone’s struggles, for a better world. In the midst of darkness, your struggle brings me joy and solace – and I hope you may accept the same pride, joy, and solace from mine.