I’ve been thinking a lot about capacity, self care and activism lately.
This morning I got one of my daily spiritual emails* that talked about directing our energies without regard to the need to be successful in an outward way. It told a story about Mother Teresa, who was asked why she devoted herself to such a massive problem as alleviating the suffering of the poor, when obviously she wasn’t going to solve poverty. Where did she get her dedication, “knowing that all the poverty and sickness would still be there long after she had died? Didn’t she realize she couldn’t win?”
“Her explanation was simple: Of course she knew the task was immense, but “finishing” wasn’t her purpose.” Since Mother Teresa was a person of faith, she was willing to do what she believed was the right action for her, regardless of the outcome. She was focused on the task itself, not the completion of it.
This resonated with me today, as I’ve been focusing on learning my capacity for work, developing systems of self care, and thinking about activist burn out. I think the tendency as one is socialized in systems of oppression, is to give and give of oneself until there is nothing left. This is a value often taught to women, the idea that you have to put everyone else’s needs before your own.
Activist movements, as in almost all things, can suck you dry—there is always more to be done, more people to reach out to, more actions to plan, more art to make, more reaching out. But at a certain point you have to be able to say, this is my limit. But we’re not socialized in a way to know what our limits are, to think thoughtfully about our capacity, and how to use self care in order to build our capacity. We’re not socialized to be able to say, “Enough, I can’t do this any longer.” I’ve seen it wear down on people until disease forces them to make big life changes.
I had to learn how to start saying no to things, how to learn how to ask folks for time to respond to them (I usually take at least 24 hours to say yes or no to volunteer work), and how to assess whether I wanted to continue working on things that were pulling a lot of my energy. I have flares of my chronic digestive disorder whenever I start getting really stressed out emotionally or with work.
Today I went for a walk on Venice Beach. My partner is in LA for a work conference and I got to stay with her at the conference hotel. I’m so grateful for a super flexible day job where I can work remotely from a hotel! I took an hour and a half off for lunch and a drive to the beach. I was very charmed by the beach but so troubled by the amount of trash that was washing ashore. I grew up as a Girl Scout in Northern California and we were always doing eco events, picking up trash in wetlands and things like that. It’s a great way to have intimacy with nature and be of service.
Whenever I’m in nature I can’t help it, I just start picking up trash. I get so troubled by seeing it, imagining plastic wrappers wrapping around the necks of birds and things like that. I am 36 years old, I’ve been hearing about environmental conservationism my entire life. It feels so sad that beach clean-up and litter in the ocean is still an ongoing issue. And don’t get me started about the Pacific Trash Vortex. I can’t even.
My brain is wired in this way where I just start to go there, I think about how big the problem is, how futile it feels for me to walk on the beach and pick up trash without a trash bag. Just gathering things in a found Starbucks cup or precariously clutching them in my paws. I had to think about what I was doing with my time. Was I going to spend my entire walk on the beach picking up litter? Or would I take the relaxing walk I had originally intended?
I decided to asses my capacity and go from there. So I focused with the intensity of a Capricorn for two ten minute bursts, and spend the rest of my thirty or so minutes on the beach in contemplation of birds in the surf and walking along. It felt like a great way to put into practice just doing something I felt called or compelled to do, without regards to the fact that my twenty minutes of litter removal was not even a drop in the bucket compared to trash island. I needed to see it as good enough and let go of the outcome.
I want to be the kind of person in the world who is of service, and also a person who enjoys life. I think that enjoying life and being person who is receptive to good in the world makes me better able to dismantle systems of oppression that say that fat people, queer people, and women, folks raised working class should not be free to enjoy their bodies. That by being a living example of a fat, embodied, sexually liberated person enjoying life is a form of activism. And that enjoying life is a way of increasing my capacity to do good.
I also know that I can use my privilege as a White person, a person with higher education, a cisgender person, temporarily able bodied, some level of “pretty privilege**,” and a person who has access to media privilege to help causes that are important to me. I never believed that by posting a blog post about Lyme Disease that I was going to somehow cure it. But I did know that by raising awareness of it, encouraging even one of my followers to watch that documentary about Lyme might make someone more sensitive to it and make the experience of Lyme for someone they know easier because someone “gets it.” That’s something. Or maybe just one of my readers has $50 to throw at my friend Jessica’s Lyme fund.
When I’m a rich lesbian I will have lots of money to give to all sorts of great organizations doing good in the world, and will create a foundation dedicated to funding projects that mainstream funders avoid–like fat stuff, radical queer stuff, sex worker organizing–and building capacity in those movements to make them more effective and support their self care matrixes. Also I will have a baller house on the beach and all those windows will have a giant mural that says “All bodies are worthy of love exactly as they are.”
It can feel so daunting to be an activist and want to work to make the world better. To get stuck in spirals of inactivity because you don’t feel effective. To get stuck in spirals of inactivity because you’re depressed, anxious, need to focus on making money or just survival and feeling so helpless. Getting used to seeing what you are doing as enough, learning that because you are human you are worthy of love and it’s not about what you “do” that matters it’s more about who you are.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the matrix of success lately, as I struggle through yet another round of letting go of my need to “accomplish” and “prove my worth.” I spent an entire session in therapy trying to talk about how I can get more done and my therapist arguing with me about how I am way too hard on myself. I have had to go through this so many times in my life and it usually ends up the same. I learn to let go of how much I accomplish, learn to feel worthy in spite of my ideas of success, and release blocks that enable me to find deep bursts of energy, creativity and the ability to work more effectively.
That airplane idea about putting your oxygen mask on first before helping others? I want to help create movements with folks where that is the norm and we help each other learn what our oxygen is.
Learning about my self care and what is effective self care has been really important for my journey to building my capacity and refilling my tank. Being at the beach really helps me. Such cleansing energy, with the wind (air), earth (sand), water (obvs) all that is missing is fire for a full four element cleanse.
*The one I am referring to is Today’s Gift from the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, which supports my work in a twelve step program for families and friends of alcoholics. I also get a daily email Note from the Universe which is super cute and whimsical.
**It feels really weird to say that you have pretty privilege when you are talking about yourself. I have so much to talk about in a subsequent post about that, but there’s definitely an element of being someone who has some level of conventional attractiveness that affects your privilege in the world, even as a fatty.