Fight injustice—and take care of yourself

8 tips from author John Pavlovitz on how to be an activist without burning out
By John Pavlovitz    Published on 01/15/2019 at 9:00 AM EDT
Miguel Bruna/Unsplash

If comic books have taught us anything (and of course they have), it’s that saving the world will wear you the heck out—which is why even the most super of heroes needs a break from time to time. Batman reclines at stately Wayne Manor, Superman retreats to his Fortress of Solitude, and Wonder Woman rests on the pristine shoreline cliffs of Themyscira. As you and I engage in everyday activism and compassionate caregiving, we slightly more ordinary heroes need to regularly seek out such refuge, too.

Every single day we rub shoulders with thousands of people in crisis; perpetually surrounded by a multitude of emergencies all competing for our time and attention, lobbying for our emotional bandwidth, asking for our outrage. And since we can’t do everything, we all have to figure out both what we’re willing to give ourselves away for—and what we’re going to have to say no to (which isn’t easy for us would-be world-savers). There is a physical and emotional subtraction that takes place as we work for goodness and justice, and as noble as that sacrifice is—we need to be aware of it.

As you start trying to become the kind of person the world needs, you realize just how much per capita pain is out there, just how many people are hurting and just how massive a job it is to try and make things a little better. One of the greatest challenges you and I face when confronting the injustices in the world, is not allowing ourselves to get swallowed up by them; to not become martyrs of our own hearts, whose own lives collapse while we’re busy saving someone else’s. It can be really easy to let the cruelty of these days get inside of you and get the best of you. Here are some suggestions on what you can do, so that doesn’t happen:

Withdraw. Living compassionately is about the two-step dance of engaging and withdrawing—of both doing and being. The former is critical, but without the latter, you will be consumed by all the need and dysfunction and pain around you. Your shoulders cannot carry it all. Whether for you, peace is found in prayer, meditation, silence, solitude, or in nature—step away from the fray and re-center, so you can quiet your mind, refresh your body, and recalibrate your brain.

Get on social media. You have invaluable resources that those who came before you have never had: limitless access to ideas and to people, so lean into those things. Stay informed so that you understand the reality in front of you, the complexities of the issues, and the gravity of the moment. Find other like-hearted people, so that you don’t feel alone in your grief and your outrage.

Now, get off social media! What our timelines and newsfeeds do for us at their worst is exponentially up-size the bad news. We see stories of predatory legislation or corrupt politicians or acts of cruelty, dozens, sometimes hundreds of times as they are shared and retweeted. This multiplication can artificially enlarge the information inside our heads, until the threats seem insurmountable before we even get out of bed. We can believe we’ve lost the day prior to it even having started. Log out from time to time, so that you can right-size the danger and not fight with tall shadows of much smaller adversaries.

Find other like-hearted people, so that you don’t feel alone in your grief and your outrage.

Take a hope inventory. It’s easy to focus on all that seems wrong in the world, since those are usually the things that trend and cut through the noise—but there are other stories as well; ones of good people being generous and decent and selfless. There is an alternative news feed of simple acts of kindness, national movements of justice, and progress for humanity breaking out all over the world. Take time to seek out these stories and to dwell on them, because they will propel you forward into this day.

Cultivate gratitude. While hope is like gold right now, it is aspirational; a not-quite, a some-day-soon, a yet-to-come. Hope is always looking to something in the future, just on the horizon. Gratitude is here and now, it is presently available to you, it is necessary soul food for this day. In the middle of working so hard to alter this place, dwell on what is worth celebrating and embracing, even if nothing changed.

Play. Spend some time intentionally welcoming lightness. Get with your children and be silly, or run around with your dog, or spend time with people you love, and embrace joy together. Watch movies that make you laugh. Get messy. Take a well-needed break from your seriousness. Playing a little bit every day isn’t irresponsible, it’s essential.

Create. Right now, it’s so tempting to abandon the things that used to be life-giving, and yet those are often our strongest tethers to peace and purpose. Be intentional about making something. Paint, write music, cook, build stuff, work in your garden. Staying connected with your muse will help remind you of your humanity and of the humanity around you. In dark times it’s easy to let that spark inside dim. Make sure you keep yours.

Share the load. Right now it’s sometimes easy to believe that you are the last of your kind; that no one is burdened by the things that burden you, that everyone is fine with all that you’re not fine with. It’s far easier to be gaslit when you’re alone. Community helps us know that we’re not crazy—and if we’re not crazy, that we’re in really good company! Find your tribe, whether in person or virtually, and carry the weight of the world together.

Friend, these are hazardous days if your faculties are intact and your heart is working properly and you have a life oriented toward other people. Because of that, it’s more important than ever that you guard your physical health, your spiritual center, and your emotional well-being. You expiring prematurely, neglecting people, or breaking down internally is not the goal here. The goal is staying in the game. Yes, this world needs you, but the people who love you need you, too—and you need you. Find a way to be an activist and an engaged citizen, without losing the best things about being here. Sure, spend some time saving the world, just remember to take off the cape and the costume for a while—and take a nap.

John’s most recent book, Hope and Other Superpowers, is available on Amazon.

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