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!