Mental Health for Activists

Words from Thomas Merton:

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence and that is activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful. ~Taken from Radical Self-Acceptance by Tara Brach

These are powerful words. Maybe a little too strong, but I wonder how many activists can relate to them. Is it just me?

As someone who subjects themselves to this:

Images from flickr users US National Archives, Wagner T. Cassimiro

every day how could you not be a little depressed? Animal abuse, child labor, slavery, the destruction of our environment…it’s a drag. When I think about the world we are leaving to my kids and my grandchildren, on my better days I a little bit want to cry. On my worst days I want to crawl under my bed and never come out.

In order to advocate on behalf of the abused and downtrodden, we have to open our eyes to their pain and suffering, to really feel it, own it almost as if it were our own. But I wonder how we can hold this space of awareness and compassion while simultaneously giving ourselves what we need to stay healthy. I know, action is the antidote to despair and all that, but let’s face facts: sometimes action is not enough to stave off despair.

As someone who has struggled with anxiety and depression for my entire adult life, I am particularly sensitive to this. I wonder if my baggage has predisposed me to a life of activism. Maybe it’s a way for me to find meaning when I feel like life is meaningless. Maybe it’s a way for me to deflect my own pain by focusing on that of others. Or maybe it’s the opposite, maybe misery loves company. Maybe it’s just the “active” part of activism that appeals to me, because as long as I’m doing something then I’m okay. I often compare myself to a shark: if I stop moving, I’ll die.

Then I heard the quote above and it gave me serious pause. The idea of activism, of wanting to help others, as violence to self keeps rolling around in my head. I don’t really buy into it – in fact, I believe that the opposite is actually true, that service to others is an important part of mental health – but where is the line between being of service to others and caring for self? Is there a line? Is it a balancing act that I just haven’t mastered yet?

A part of me had a jolt of recognition upon hearing this: by taking the peaceful place within myself that I had worked so hard to carve out and filling it with Stuff I Have To Do, I am actually becoming a much less effective advocate for peace, not to mention a much less healthy and happy person and mother. I think about people who have devoted their lives to service – you know, Mother Theresa, people like that – and I wonder what they were like in their quiet moments. How were they able to sustain themselves over the long haul? I wonder if they were fundamentally stronger than I am, or if they prioritized self-care and self-worth better than I do, or if they were closet nut cases just like me.

So, what of it? How do you you keep yourself from falling into a pit of despair as you think about the dark underbelly of life, of the cruel and destructive things that go on around us? Please share!

Environmentalist. (Biological) Parent. Mutually Exclusive?

Harry's first day home, May 2008 - kids may use a lot of resources, but man are they cute!

I’m catching up on my blog reading, and I came across this post from Beth Terry at My Plastic Free Life, which asks the question:

[W]hat do you think? About population, procreation, adoption, and women’s reproductive decisions? Is adoption a more eco-friendly alternative to procreation? Or does it just create a whole new set of problems?

As I approach the anniversary of my entree into parenthood (a.k.a. my daughter’s birthday), these questions really strike a chord with me.  This is an issue to which I devoted a lot of thought before becoming pregnant, during my pregnancy, and since my children’s births.  I have vivid memories of reading World War III as part of my Humane Education program while 23 weeks pregnant and feeling panic and failure as an activist.

I am aware that no matter how lightly I try to live,my family uses exponentially more resources than, say, a family in sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia simply by virtue of where we are.  I considered the drain on resources my children would represent, and gave serious thought to building our family through adoption.  It is difficult to make a sound argument that adding humans to the planet, especially North American middle class humans, will not have a somewhat negative impact on the planet, though I have seen people try to make just that argument.

However, I also believe that humans (like all animals) possess a fundamental, hard-wired drive to pass on our genetic material and it is hubris to claim otherwise.  I believe that having children should be a woman’s choice on every level, but I also believe that the desire to have biological children is something that does not bend easily under the forces of logic.

(From this point forward, for the sake of brevity, I will stop saying “biological parents” and “biological children” and say “parents” and “children” instead, though I honor the fact that people become parents and build families in all sorts of ways that do not necessarily involve personal procreation.)

I agree with Beth, and with other bloggers she quotes, that it is important to explore the angles and to have awareness around the choices we make.  I am humbled by people who place their commitment to sustainability above their desire to have children.  That was a choice I was, ultimately, unwilling to make.

However, I worry about going to the extreme and saying that an individual with children is fundamentally unfit to be an environmentalist.  I know that there are a number of people who feel this way, and I know that other activist communities (animal rights activists come to mind) look down upon “breeders”.  However, I think that to exclude or discount the contributions of people who choose to procreate is to do a grave disservice to any social justice cause.

First off, many (most?) adults choose to become parents, and this is not likely to change.  If people who are parents are made to feel that they are third-string environmentalists, they may not be as motivated to make positive lifestyle choices.

But more importantly, I believe that for many people, new parenthood is a Come to Jesus moment (or Buddha, or Brahman, or The Great Spirit – insert the deity of your choice if you wish).  While they may have been indulgent and excessive in their younger days, people often become motivated to contribute to planetary peace, justice, and sustainability once they have children.  To make them feel unwelcome, that they are already disqualified just as they are coming to the environmental movement full of motivation and commitment, would be a sad thing.

So yes, having fewer people on Earth would help to stem the tide of resource depletion, and yes, this is a valid, even admirable, reason to refrain from having children.  But some people are simply not willing to make that choice, and that does not in and of itself make them a less important member of the environmental movement.

Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary

In honor of my humane educator roots in animal rights activism, my first post on Ahimsa Mama is about our recent family trip to Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary in Poughquag (Duchess County), New York.

Dr. William Crain, who founded and continues to operate the sanctuary with his wife, NYC physician Dr. Ellen Crain, was one of the keynote speakers at the Cultivating Children’s Creativity conference I helped to organize at Wellspring Community School last month.  As part of his presentation, he showed video of some young children interacting with the sanctuary residents, and I knew right away that I had to see this place.  There are not tons of farmed animal sanctuaries around, and among those there are just a few that welcome young children (such as my nearly-five and nearly-three-year old) for a visit.  Given that the Drs. Crain are a child development specialist (Bill) and a pediatrician (Ellen), and exceptionally warm people to boot, they not only welcomed our wee ones with open arms but offered to make us lunch (which, for the record, we declined, opting instead to bring our own brown-bagged vegan lunches).

Bill and Ellen enthusiastically led us through their rain-soaked, muddy farm and introduced us to their furred and feathered friends, offering each resident’s story as we met them.  The kids were encouraged to touch and feed the animals (except the turkeys who are apparently going through a crabby phase right now), and it was great to see how they reacted to the trust that the Crains placed in their ability to interact with the animals kindly and gently.  Even my whirling dervish of a son was relatively calm though he did find the temptation to chase a chicken or two too great to resist.  The chickens, I’m glad to report, seemed to take it in stride – I suspect this is not the first time they have been subjected to a little boy of Harry’s ilk.

I encourage you to check out the Safe Haven website, and to schedule a visit if you are in the area.  We can’t wait to go back – on a drier and sunnier day, we hope.

Welcome to Ahimsa Mama!

I am so glad that you have found me here, whether you are a new reader or one of my followers at my old blog.  My life journey has taken me in new and interesting directions lately and I have learned a lot, but I have had a lot of trouble finding my way back to a place of personal peace and family rhythm.  One of the things that I have sacrificed during the past few chaotic months has been my blogging routine, and I have missed it terribly.  So here I am, at a new location, with a renewed commitment to exploring my journey through parenthood and activism, examining where these two commitments overlap and intersect (or don’t), and discovering new ways of living a life that is in integrity.  I welcome and honor you as my partner on this odyssey!