The Care and Feeding of Activists

The Care and Feeding of Activists February 15, 2015

wind turbines 05.22.10The Care and Feeding of Activists

by John Beckett
the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
February 15, 2015


At the beginning of the movie Patton, George C. Scott stands in front of a giant American flag and gives an excerpt from a speech given several times by General Patton during World War II.  The speech begins “I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country.”  The rest of that speech is not relevant to our purposes today.  But that line is – soldiers don’t win wars by dying.  They win wars by doing the things that soldiers have to do to defeat their enemies.

Some of us aren’t comfortable with military metaphors, but trying to build a better world is like fighting a war in that it’s big, and long, and complicated, and very very hard.  We need as many people as possible doing as much as possible for as long as possible.  We can’t afford to lose anyone, and we especially can’t afford to lose anyone to burnout or fatigue.  Those are preventable losses.

There are people who have been killed or injured while working for peace and justice.  We celebrate their lives and we honor their deaths.  But the benefits of martyrdom are overrated.  Perhaps their deaths provide a rallying point for those who are left, but martyrdom mainly deprives the movement of a capable and energetic contributor.  The work is too important – we can’t afford to lose anyone.  We want no martyrs of negligence.

It’s easy to get caught up in the importance of what we do.  Causes, issues, candidates, and projects all have impacts on people’s lives.  Part of what we do is to build for the future, but sometimes what we’re doing has an effect right here right now.  How do you stop for the night when someone is counting on you?  How do you take time off – and not feel guilty about it – when a project needs everyone it can get right now?

We like to talk about sustainability – sustainable cities and sustainable communities and sustainable energy.  We need sustainable activists too – and that means you too!  Being an effective activist means taking care of yourself so you’re up for the long haul.

Why do you do what you do?

The first key to taking care of yourself is to remember why you do what you do.

Why do you work for marriage equality?  Why do you work to end racism?  Why do you teach kids in Religious Education?  Why do you fight for good science education in schools?  Why do you run for city council?

There’s some reason why you do what you do that goes beyond “well, that sounds like a good idea.”  I don’t know what that is – my reasons aren’t your reasons.  But whatever your reasons, never forget them.

It will help to create reminders of why you do what you do.  If you keep an altar at home, put it there.  If you don’t, put a picture on your refrigerator or your bookshelf or your bathroom mirror.  Make a bracelet or a string of beads.  Incorporate them into your daily meditations and daily prayers.

And when you remember your reasons for doing what you do, also remember what aren’t your reasons.  You didn’t start this to get rich and famous.  You didn’t start it so everyone would like you.  You didn’t start it so everything would be nice and easy.

You started it because something deep inside told you it was the right thing to do.  Never forget why you’re here.

What gives you strength? 

What gives you strength?  What restores you, what rejuvenates you, what re-energizes you?

I can’t overemphasize the need for daily spiritual practice, the need to do something every day.  Meditation, prayer, devotional reading, singing and chanting all help.  So does going outside and looking up at the brilliant night sky and realizing that no matter how big and vast the universe is, you’re a part of it all… and so is everyone else.  Daily spiritual practice helps us to learn and grow deeper in spirit, it reinforces our core values, it reminds us of who and what we are.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a Pagan or a Christian or a Buddhist or a Humanist or anything else – these are daily spiritual practices that can be used in any tradition.

There’s group practice – getting together to sit in meditation or observe the full moon or participate in a Sunday service.  It’s a rare person who can live a truly spiritual life alone – most of us need the encouragement and reinforcement and accountability that comes from being in community with other like-minded folks.

Then there’s basic self care.  You’re an adult – you know what I’m talking about.  Eat healthy.  Hitting the drive-through at McDonald’s may be OK every now and then, but there’s no substitute for sitting down to a real dinner with real food.  Drink healthy.  Coffee in the morning and wine at night will only keep you going for so long.  Get plenty of exercise.  Maybe what you do has you up and walking all over town, but maybe it has you sitting behind a computer all day.  You’re a product of millions of years of evolution – your body expects to move.

And get plenty of rest.  The older I get, the more important this becomes.  Yes, there are times when something simply has to get done now even if it means staying up till 3 AM.  But that means you’re going to be running on empty the next day, and you’re simply not going to be back to full strength until you get enough rest.

Who has permission to tell you to go to bed?

Do you remember when you were six or seven years old, it was getting late, you were getting sleepy… you were having trouble staying awake.  But the grownups were talking and doing stuff and if you go to bed now you might miss something!  Your mother would ask “aren’t you about ready for bed?” and you’d say “no, no – I’m not sleepy!”  Eventually your mother would say “GO TO BED!” and you’d drag yourself to your room complaining about how it wasn’t fair and wondering what cool stuff you were going to miss and as soon as your head hit the pillow you were out till the next morning.  And when you woke up you might still be mad about what you thought you missed, but you felt great and you were ready for whatever would come that day.

Who has permission to tell you to go to bed?

Who has permission to tell you “you look pretty run down – why don’t you go home and we’ll finish up here?”  Who has permission to tell you “you’ve been working really hard – let’s let someone else take care of this one.”

Sometimes our devotion to a cause or our obsession with a project overrides our good sense.  If we’re constantly tired because we aren’t getting enough rest, if we’re dealing with too much stress, or if we’ve become physically ill, we aren’t as effective as we need to be.  Take the time off you need to rest and recharge and then come back at full strength.

Some of my more hard core activist friends like to point out that for people living in extreme poverty, in violent environments, and in states of oppression, there is no opportunity to rest and recharge.  That’s a sad truth.  The ability to take time off is a privilege, and like all privilege our best approach is not to reject it but to use it for the greater good.

Taking on bigger things

If you do good work, and you do it consistently, expect to be asked to take on bigger things.  Even in a non-hierarchic or anarchic movement, do things well and bigger things will find you.  It’s always nice to have your work recognized – congratulations.  But as you move on to bigger things, there are three things to keep in mind.

First, what got you here won’t get you there.  New roles and new challenges require new skills – give yourself the opportunity to learn them.  Read books, take classes, go to seminars.  Find someone who’s already doing what you’re starting and see how they work.  Eventually you’ll figure out your own way of doing things, but to start, learn from the best.

Second, what got you here will keep you here.  This line comes from baseball, where sometimes young players will be promoted to the major leagues and get intimidated by all the great players they grew up watching.  All of a sudden a power pitcher thinks he has to nibble on the corners, or a finesse pitcher thinks he has to strike everyone out.  They get away from doing what they do best and they struggle as a result.

Yes, you want to learn from the best, but if you try to be someone you’re not you’ll fall flat on your face.  Remember what you’re good at and use your strengths.

Third, teach the next generation.  If you’re going to move on to something else someone needs to take your place.  Perhaps your organization or movement has a formal training program, but more likely the movement depends on newcomers learning from experienced folks – even though those “experienced” people may only have been in their roles for a couple years or a couple months.

Find someone who has the talent and the desire to do what you do and train them, even if they don’t look or sound like you, even if they have a very different background from you, even if they’re a lot younger than you.  Even if they’re a lot older than you.  Skills can be taught – desire can’t.

Behind the scenes

There are many ways to contribute.  Some people make speeches and write editorials supporting helpful legislation.  Some people work in the kitchen at the homeless shelter.  Some people are out in the streets, carrying signs and sometimes getting arrested for calling attention to injustice.   This is all good and necessary work.

But some of us can’t do those things.  We have obligations to family, we have health issues, or the thought of public activism fills us with a fear we just can’t overcome.

Charlie the Marine may be doing the fighting, but he needs Rosie the Riveter supporting him in the factory.  If we can’t be on the front lines, we can be behind the scenes.  We can make phone calls and stuff envelopes.  We can write checks.  We can use our unique set of abilities and resources to contribute to the greater good.  It’s all important work, it’s all necessary work, and there is honor in doing any of it.  Do what you can do the best you can do it and don’t obsess about what you can’t do.

The Fraud Police

Singer Amanda Palmer warns us about the Fraud Police.  These are the people who sneak into your bedroom at 2:00 AM and whisper:  “you don’t know what you’re doing.”  “You’re making this up as you go.”  “You’re not a real activist, you’re not a real UU.”  “You’re a hypocrite.  You’re a fraud.”  “We’re going to take away all your credentials, all your positions, all the stuff you do, and we’re going to tell everybody what a fraud you are.”

Has anybody had a visit from the Fraud Police?  Has anybody not had a visit from the Fraud Police?

Here are the facts:  if you’re doing something helpful, then you’re for real.  If you’re making the world a better place, then you’re for real. If you’re supporting justice and compassion, then you’re for real.

So what do we say to the Fraud Police when they whisper to us in the middle of the night?

We say “you know, you’re right – I don’t know what I’m doing.  You’re right – I am making it up as I go.  But you know what?  There were some homeless people who got fed yesterday because of the work we did.  There was a roadside that got cleaned up because of the work we’re doing.  There were laws changed because of the work we did.  The world is a little more just, a little more compassionate, and a little more fair because of the work we did.

Now, would you like to help?  Or would you like to get the hell out of the way?”

Holy tension, holy trust

19th century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Sometimes the great progress of our era simply shines a light on how much work is left to be done.  Sometimes the arc of the moral universe seems impossibly long.  Particularly for issues and causes that affect us personally or that we are particularly passionate about, it can seem as though we’ll never get there.

How do we keep the weight of the world’s needs from crushing us?  How do we keep the enormity of it all from discouraging us to the point we give up?  Particularly for those of us who do not believe in a single all-powerful god who pulls the strings, how can we reasonably have faith that what we’re doing makes a real and lasting difference?

We can keep going because of holy tension.  On one hand, we know that what we do is critically important.  We’re dealing with questions of justice and fairness.  We’re dealing with the rights of all people to live as they’re called to live.  We’re dealing with respect for Nature and perhaps even the very survival of our species.  The importance of these matters inspires us to keep working no matter how long it takes.

On the other hand, we recognize that the problems are immense and any one thing we do is only a drop in the bucket.  Filling up that bucket is going to take a long time regardless of what we do.  If we need to go to bed early or watch a silly movie or take a trip that’s OK.

We live in holy tension between importance and irrelevance.  Irrelevance reminds us that if we miss something, that’s OK.  This is a marathon and getting proper rest is both permissible and necessary.  Importance reminds us that when we’re rested, it’s time to get back to the work that must be done.

We can keep going because of holy trust.  Time alone cures nothing, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he said “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God.”  But I trust that if I do what I can and you do what you can and the folks at Trinity Presbyterian do what they can, it will be enough.  I know this work will take longer than my lifetime, but I trust that those who come after me will continue the work when I’m gone.

We’re building a temple, a temple to the highest virtues and values known to humanity.  I’ve got a vision of it in my mind – you probably do too – but I haven’t seen the blueprints.  I don’t think there are any blueprints.  But there was a foundation on the ground when I got here, a foundation laid by our ancestors.  My job is to stack bricks on top of bricks on top of bricks.  Some days I see signs of progress.  Other days I work all day long and it doesn’t look like the walls got any higher.

This temple is a massive undertaking, and I don’t have that many years left.  None of us do, not even the youngest among us.  But I trust that when I can’t lay bricks any more, someone’s going to come behind me.  And they won’t have to start over from the ground, they can pick up where I left off.  And if they don’t finish, someone will come along behind them.

And sooner or later, this world will have something that looks a lot like a temple.


Building a just and compassionate world is not easy.  It requires consistent effort from many people across many generations.  As we leave this place and return to the ordinary world, let us remember to take care of ourselves, to take care of each other, to do the best we can with what we can, and to trust that if we do, it will be enough.

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