Above photo: From Futures Without Violence.
Instead of stifling our despair and pushing forward with more work, we need to make time for our fears.
Maybe you’re like me and you think you’ve got a pretty good handle on why you’re operating in low gear right now. I’ve written my own list in journals, played it out in my head. Maybe some of this sounds familiar:
“I keep waiting for this pandemic to really, really be over so I can feel close to people again, connected. Hell, so we can organize.”
“I can’t shake the fear that things are just going to keep getting worse. I don’t see any real avenue for change on some of the biggest problems we’re staring down. A compounding climate crisis feels inevitable now. And are we going to lose abortion access? I can’t imagine how my generation will ever get out from under all this debt. Is fascism taking hold?”
“I’m exhausted from giving so much leadership in such a short amount of time. There’s COVID, the uprisings, the elections — I’ve already led our team through so many difficult moments and transitions, so many re-imaginings, re-buildings. I don’t know what else I can give.”
“It’s hard for me to absorb any more stories and pictures of violence right now. I just can’t take it in.”
“It seems like the conditions are getting worse faster than we’re growing in power. What do we do in the face of that? Where will we get the strength? Everyone around me seems exhausted.”
The metaphor that comes to mind is that it’s like we’re trying to move forward, leaning, shoulders down, into a big forceful wind — and, at best, we’re holding our ground, clenched. Plus, because some of us have been holding this posture for quite a while, we’re doing it tired.
I confided in a friend and co-trainer at Training for Change about all this recently, just after a workshop we led in West Virginia for up-and-coming community organizers in the orbit of the WV Can’t Wait movement. My buddy trains internationally, especially in Latin America, and has a habit of shining a loving light on the things us navel-gazing Americans often don’t see. “Your empire is falling,” she said, matter-of-factly to me over coffee. “Empires fall. It was going to happen eventually.” And then she turned the conversation to the rest of our day.
Needless to say, I’ve been thinking about her words ever since. And not because she made some sort of cataclysmic statement, but rather because she offered a framework for the cataclysm I feel.
We can debate all day about the nature of empire or what it means to fall or how quickly that might happen or whether or not that’s good in the long run. The question that our conversation planted in me was about what we as organizers do when empires fall. What do we do when the state garners (and perhaps deserves) less and less legitimacy — and when each day it’s more and more up to us to govern ourselves?
But then I pause, because I find myself in a familiar thought loop.
This question of what we do doesn’t exactly feel like it gets at the heaviness that’s in me, that’s in us. I’ve spent the last three years asking, in the face of enormous difficulty, “What do we do now?” and I’ve learned that coming up with a smart answer to that question may offer some high for a period of time, but it’s pretty clear it can’t sustain us.
I think that’s because the significance of what we’re staring down doesn’t just beg questions about potential shifts in strategic emphasis, it also raises much deeper questions about what we do when hope is scarce. What do we do when it’s quite reasonable to believe that things will get harder? When we assume that more of our campaigns will fail? When the suffering around us keeps increasing?
And how do we answer those questions when we’re feeling so low to begin with?
The response I’m most familiar with is suppression — to push fear, uncertainty or despair as far deep down as they can go and, often, to cover it all up with more work.
It’s easy to understand why. Organizers like me have a deep belief that we can make change — so much so that sometimes our identities and sense of worth can also get wrapped up in that belief. We can beat ourselves up for not knowing the “right” thing to do in the face of great adversity, and we can hold shame about our confusion. The quiet story we tell ourselves is that, if we’re good, we’ll know, and we’ll execute.
Of course this isn’t true.
But then what?
What do we do instead of stamping down our despair and straining forward toward more work? Well, my experience tells me that when we’re in an active posture all the time, there’s not a lot of room for anything else. There’s especially not room for feeling anything.
In the words of author and movement facilitator Joanna Macey, “The refusal to feel takes a heavy toll. Not only is there an impoverishment of our emotional and sensory life… but this psychic numbing also impedes our capacity to process and respond to information. The energy expended in pushing down despair is diverted from more creative uses, depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies.”
Now, I want to be cautious here — since we organizers can also be hard on ourselves for not doing self-care “right.” “If I could only get it together to do yoga in the morning, I wouldn’t be so worn out!” we tell ourselves. That’s not what I’m rooting for.
Instead, I’m sticking up for a collective project: strengthening the ability of our groups to hold each other in our emotional range — and making time for it.
I’ve had and have the good fortune to be in groups where this happens, and I want to tell you about one.
I remember being in a slump at a training in Philadelphia six years ago, coming off some hard losses at home. The workshop was full of organizers from around the country, getting together to hone our craft. And some of us, including me, were doing that thing a room of organizers can do when they get together: building up the stories of our local work as if to say to one another, “I do stuff. I’m confident. We’re winning.”
Throughout the event, we moved around the room, engaging in different activities led by participants. And then there was one session led by a newer trainer. I remember he instructed us to get into groups where we were given a chance to talk about the things we feared most about losing. It was almost blasphemous! The energy in the room shifted. The instructions he gave made it clear that we were not there to console each other or tidy up our feelings or talk about how we could use them to take action; we were just there to listen. And then we got to reflect on what we talked about.
This simple practice hit me deeply. I realized how much I’d been worrying in secret — and what an ease there was in not being alone. And I realized how much I was shouldering responsibility for all of the movement work my team was doing. I had this private belief that my effort — me, one person — was directly tied to things getting better. That if only I knew what to do, we wouldn’t be losing.
The conversation — one where we could say the truth about how we felt and hear versions of that reflected back to us — helped me find a new posture, and do some things that my trying to hide or suppress despair wouldn’t allow. For starters, it made me feel closer to my colleagues and co-conspirators. Being less alone is a helpful resource when you are in that low place. It also offered me release, in a way all the journaling in the world couldn’t, because my worries were witnessed. My feelings landed. And the notion that I even had a choice to shake off that impossible sense of responsibility I’d been carrying around energized me, and got me curious about what other parts I might play in the movement. I was able to ask myself, for the first time in a very long time, how I might want to contribute if I were to step outside of my deep sense of obligation.
One answer to the question of “What can we do when hope is scarce?” is to stop fighting that feeling and go toward despair — to give ourselves, our groups, the time and tending that they very much warrant. And then, to see what comes.