Sunday, October 21, 2012

Occupy Self Care

The internet is wild with a flurry of articles on activism and self care in response to a thought-provoking, but ultimately really flawed post entitled "An End to Self Care." The part I think the author got right was the reality that we need what might be termed "community care" or an ethics of care in the communal sense, as opposed to expecting every individual or family unit to "take care of themselves." That capitalism has fragmented us, privatized our suffering, and commodified nearly every last aspect of our lives. And that this needs to be challenged, and overturned, and it won't be overturned because a privileged minority are able to attend expensive spiritual retreats, or can afford regular acupuncture or massages, to name two common examples of "self care."

However, once you move beyond that point, the article goes off the rails in many respects. Pressing praise for doing 18 hour days and damning those who don't do so as not being "connected enough" with the "deep purpose" of the activist work they're doing. Suggestions that doing "movement work" is self care, which sometimes is true, but more often isn't and/or can't be under the current conditions. Thumbing his nose at things like activist knitting circles, which makes me think of the sexism that is all too prevalent still in many North American activist circles (and elsewhere I would guess). The suggestion that clarity of purpose can override any conditions, when that's not the case, and in some cases, that very belief that you are clear about what you want and the way to get there is exactly what blocks you - and others - from getting anywhere. Despite appeals to classism, there's a middle class stink to the article as well, including especially the upholding of the untiring servant to the cause as the ideal.

I recently went through another round of what might be called activist burnout. After several months of devotion to multiple aspects of the Occupy movement here in Minneapolis, I hit a wall. Having left a teaching job the year before Occupy started, I was running out of money, and the few potential options for income that had developed during Occupy hadn't materialized. I was flat broke. Getting concerned comments from a few members of my family and friend circle. And when I surveyed the group of folks who had stuck it out in Occupy, what I mostly saw were middle class, white Boomer activists and broke folks like myself. (There's definitely more diversity than this, but this is the makeup of the two largest groups.) And although there have been some amazing acts of mutual care, including a few Occupy members sharing homes and trading skills to get work done without having to hire expensive help - there hasn't, at this point, developed something like a culture of community care. Not a thriving one anyway. It's a minority viewpoint, the idea that part of revolution - a big part of it perhaps - is modeling what moving beyond the privatization of our needs might look like. For all the big ideals and large scale focused action in Occupy, the deeply engrained notion that it's up to each of us to find and keep a job, get our bills paid, health needs dealt with, housing taken care of, food bought paid for and/or cooked, etc.

The vast majority of people in the local foreclosure movement, for example, are mostly pushing for the banks to allow folks to pay their bills on different time tables. Or at reduced rates from the inflated housing bubble prices of half a decade ago. In other words, at the end of the day, we're still talking about block after block of privately owned houses that have to be maintained - in large part - by those who own them. And furthermore, that our neighborhoods are still broken down into small, privatized units. Into owners, rents, and squatters. Into people who have the means to pay, and those who don't. Which trickles straight down into the capitalist notion that the only people that are "worth" anything are those who can work and pay their own way in the world. For long, long stretches of their lives. In many cases, almost their entire lives. Illness is negated. Exhaustion is negated. Play is negated. Disability is negated. Depression, and other chronic mental disorders are negated. Discrimination that leads to joblessness is negated. And so, all those whose lives have any number of these things intersecting at the same time are negated.

The numerous responses to the End of Self Care article demonstrate this most clearly.

From the Brownstargirlblog:

Middle or upper class organizers from the 1800s to now just looooooove painting majestic, romanticized and simplistic pictures of who poor and working class people are. Hint: we're not all one thing. We are amazing, diverse, complicated in our poverty and working class scholarship. My life as the kid of a working-class white rust belt mom growing up in recession Massachusetts in the 80s who's won a bunch of scholarships, is real different than my friend who grew up the daughter of a poverty class sex working white mama in the 80s, is real diff than my cousin, who didn't get a scholarship and is cutting hair in our hometown. And that's the great thing- as broke folks, we get to have, like, conversations, with each other, about all the different things being poor or working class has meant to us, looked like to us, taught us, gifted us with, and our genius which could give birth to entirely new galaxies of movements and forms of organizing. (Sarcasm definitely in there, and definitely may only be picked up on by other folks who were raised poor or working class.) Sometimes, anyway. There are so many things that make it difficult for us to find each other.

One thing I know for sure we aren't? Cardboard cut out workers who work selflessly for the movement 17 or 18 hours a day, handing out leaflets.

And this from immigrant rights activist veteran Subhash Kateel:

The idea that some of the hardest working people I know need to or should be able to work an hour more than they already do, nevermind endlessly, is pretty freaking terrifying. A lot of people working in change organizations, what we obnoxiously call "the movement," have very little problem working their asses off (whether we work smart or not is another article). We have very little problem "burning the midnight oil" for justice, as I understood B. to be implying. In my almost two decades of change work, including 12 in the immigrant rights movement, I've met thousands of people whose courage, bravery and intellect were matched only by their insane work ethic. Almost all of them were driven by the fact that the folks we care about are struggling, suffering and dying daily. Sometimes they/we developed crazy martyr complexes. Other times we rolled our eyes when someone would bring up self-care, deep breathing or yoga mats (ok that was mostly me).

But I've also witnessed our work ethic create a martyr/persecution/entitlement complex that in any other profession/vocation/calling would be grounds for mandated professional therapy. I have also seen (sometimes in my own life) people who spend all day fighting for families facing deportation and the death penalty who were absent from the emergency room when their own families where sick or dying. Many of us have seen people fighting tooth and nail to stop evictions while their own home was being foreclosed on or participating on ridiculously long late-night conference calls while their owns kids needed help with homework.

And this from Ambrose of The Root Cellar blog:

i wanted to chime in on the chorus of brilliant replies and comments from folks on B. leowes circulating article "an end to self care". I'll link some of my faves below. they cover many things i wish i had the time and energy to speak to, like the classism and sexism present, and the deeply triggering nature of the ableism, and just how interdependent self care and community care truly are. this is a work in progress for me, for all of us...but here's whats on the forefront for me right now...

i often struggle with copious amounts of shame, frustration and confusion over the fact that right now in my life all i have to give is going towards helping raise 2 children. It can feel deeply unradical, ordinary and anonymous. it is adding exponentially to my already intense isolation. While not my intention, my world has become this house, this home. As someone who is disabled and chronically ill, i am tapped . if i don't take time to space out and watch shadows dance on my wall, or have a hot shower, roll around on a tennis ball to keep my neck from going out, scroll thru fucking facebook, grow kale or whatever the hell i can manage that feels -still- and healing, i won't be able to make dinner and clean it all up.

The word "solidarity" comes to mind here. When I hear it in activist circles, it tends to be tied to the kind of 18 hour a day activism that Loewe's article triumphantly upholds. If you show up all the time, or most of the time, you're in solidarity. If you put your own needs on the back burner to the point of placing your life at risk, you're in solidarity. If you offer to put yourself across militarized police lines, get tossed in jail, get beat in the head, etc., you're in solidarity.

Not only is there a limited notion around what constitutes an act of solidarity, but each individual act tends to have a short shelf life. Today's hero is tomorrow's goat. Dude isn't good enough 'cause he won't get himself tossed in the clink again for the cause. It's an insanely unsustainable pattern, one that ultimately seems to be coming less from a vision for a new world, and more out of a reaction - a deep aversion - to the current world.

During the past few months, I've gone through all kinds of internal conflict around my work in Occupy, and the real need to step back and take care of myself. I've had guilt around not doing more. I've felt highly irresponsible for mostly abandoning the eco-centric subgroup that I played a key role in developing. I have felt anger towards those who expect too much, and who get to "run the show" in various ways because they somehow have the resources and energy to constantly be around when decisions are being made. Even I, who has a fair amount of Time Privilege, can't keep up with some of these folks. And I don't want to. Nor should anyone else. Because it's not sustainable. Nor is it the kind of culture I want to uphold as grand and noble. But these are the people who tend to get to decide. Get to be the spokespeople. Get to push the agenda's they are most comfortable with. To some degree, I was one of these people for months. However, because I wouldn't give in to the relentless drive to be at everything, do everything, I was almost always on the outside of the inner circle that developed in the larger Occupy. Within the smaller group of eco-activists, I was in the inner circle though, so much so that I found it really hard to let go of feelings of responsibility and "solidarity," even after I began stepping back. Either way, it seems, brings perils. Which is why it's so vital to keep raising the issues being raised in these articles - even Loewe's article - because much of what constitutes the general culture of activism is destructive over the long haul for everyone, whether they are agents of power and influence or not.

Ironically, one of the missions of the eco-centric group we started as an offshoot from the main Occupy here in Minneapolis, was to develop a culture of caring. A culture of sharing the tools and practices needed to both resist the sick, unjust systems of today, but also which might lead to a transformed tomorrow. To center that within our activist work, as opposed to keeping it tucked away in individualized, privatized pockets. It's certainly possible that this kind of cultural shift will occur in that smaller group, as part of a larger societal shift. However, as it is now, that group is struggling as much as any with issues of burnout, interpersonal conflicts, and conflicting views about the nature of the "good activist" or what constitutes activism.

The sap of the colonial project that brought us modern capitalism has penetrated more deeply than we collectively, or individually, understand. It has stolen not only the material wealth of the majority, but it has also robbed many of us of our basic sense of wise compassion, replacing it either with heavy contempt for those who "don't measure up," or a syrupy, sentimental compassion that ultimately fails to penetrate the marrow of our hearts and uplift the best within each of us.

Any revolutionary vision worth a grain of salt must be one in which caring for one's self is not pitted against caring for the world. How to do this in a new way, one that isn't about advocating for the naval gazing of the highly privileged, or the current notion of self care as a solely private function - I don't know exactly. But I do know that the separation between self and other has been exaggerated by the modern, capitalist world, so much so that it's difficult for those of us born and bred in this culture to move beyond imagining another way of being together, and working together. Lots of visions, but mostly visions that we repeatedly chop off at the feet through our capitalized habits.

And so, in the end, I think it's important to have some compassion for where we are at. For all the ways in which members of different groups are struggling, and so often failing, to come together to resist and break down the oppressive structures that be, and to build something new, and more life affirming. It's heartbreaking at times how much we tend to step on each others' feet and keep the wheels of oppression turning, even amongst folks who are so motivated to not perpetuate that very thing. But it's what people do when they haven't figured out another way.

In other words, we aren't going to get to something called "community care" or a culture of caring for each other as the norm without going through a lot of mud. And being ok with the fact that sometimes, it's too much to take even one more ounce of that mud under our consideration for a day, week, month, or even year at a time. The revolution must be something that moves beyond anything we can think up. It has to include the whole works, and probably needs to defy most of our expectations and desires, in order to be that which our hearts truly long for.


  1. Thank you for writing this Nathan. I have been thinking a lot about the issues of personal practice versus community work, especially since reading 21st Century Yoga, featuring your excellent essay. Seven years ago, I spent two years living and working at a house for adults with intellectual disabilities. Some of the people who worked there found the cause nourishing and fulfilling enough to help them cope with the long, and often endless hours with very little time off. Most people, however, struggled with burnout. I feel guilty about how relieved I was to finally leave and have my own days to carve out with whatever I wanted to do, including ample hours of yoga, self-reflection, and self-care. Although I still worked at the home part-time, I felt ceaselessly guilty about not giving the way I gave before. Five years later, I feel like those two years were possibly the most valuable contribution I ever made, and yet I left there convinced that I never wanted to do anything so consuming ever again. I agree with the commenter who said that self-care and community care are intimately interconnected. According to my observations, many of us who are called to do service are prone to all-or-nothing thinking patterns. If we are to serve both others and ourselves, part of our practices will be to balance these extremes. I wish you all the best on your journey. -Erica.

  2. Hi Erica,

    I know that guilt. It seems to be built into the all or nothing model. One of the things that so often feels missing from the analysis is the fact that those of us on the "front lines" are prone to secondary trauma. It's next to impossible to not take in some of the suffering around you, no matter how strong or well balanced you are. But how many us doing service or activist work are actually internally strong and well balanced? Not many I'd say.

    One of my former jobs was working with emotionally/behaviorally disturbed children in a treatment center. I stayed there 3 1/2 years, outlasting several co-workers, but ultimately leaving feeling kind of disturbed myself. Because, among other things, our support network was built on dysfunction itself. Chain smoking for the smokers. Generous amounts of bitching. And heavy drinking together following shifts.

    Glad you've been able to read our new book. There are some really rich essays in there. I'm honored to be a part of the group.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your story. At the risk of shameless self promotion I sincerely believe you and your readers who are concerned about activist self care might benefit from my writings. Some are available for free on I also have a book out. Here's a link to the review.

    If this my writings to the conversation I am truly honoured.


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