How do we keep our cool as activists? I’m thinking about this not only in terms of keeping our cool in the moment – when directly confronted with something inherently wrong – but long-term. We talk about recharging and doing self-care and avoiding burnout, and all of those are vitally important, but I also mean something more: how do we keep going when there isn’t an action to do, or when the very necessary action we have to do is waiting?
It’s times like Litha that make me need to ground. (Grounding and centering are of course part of the answer, but not all of it, I think.) It’s days like these midsummer ones when I long to be outdoors, even if the heat and the air pollution aren’t really good for me, and I have to stop myself and put on sunscreen and just generally exercise so much more restraint than I would like. (Explain to me again why I can’t be topless on my own balcony? Never mind.) The energy of these times is pulling me up and out and into action. But sometimes that’s not what I need to do.
I was talking with another Witch about how frustrating it is that when we are confronted with what seems like clear-cut discrimination, the first thing you have to do is wait. You keep your cool in that moment, and you document, and you ask firmly and politely, and you document the responses. You don’t start shouting about the Constitution and firing off curses even if that’s really what you want to do. You don’t crawl away resigned, even if you are shaking a little bit out of shock, even if that’s what a lifetime of being a woman tells you to do. You begin to work the system, gathering allies and mounting a response, and then you wait.
And you wait for a long time. Consulting experts takes time – even finding the right people to consult about something can be a significant challenge. (Your cousin’s niece’s friend who worked at Starbucks by the law library for six months, or anyone else you encounter on the Internet, is probably not the expert you need.) Once you find them, the experts go to work, and you wait some more. You remind yourself that all your other options remain available, but once you get aggressive, you can’t go back, at least not easily. You listen to the advice of the experts, and you wait. Somehow, you sustain yourself.
I’m writing here from the perspective of the issue that I went through trying to get my ordination recognized, but I think the same issues arise in a lot of other activist work. Even when it is not so purely personal, there is a ton of waiting involved. I know I’m waiting right now to hear the Supreme Court decision about reproductive health care requirements in the ACA. That case was heard in March, and the oral arguments were just the latest step in a long line of developments. Now we wait.
Experiences like this are challenging me to develop a more nuanced view of activism. It seems like activism should be all fire – acting and making changes in the world. Litha should be high time for activism. But just as I am learning that I need to ground at Litha, I am learning that activism isn’t all about catching fire. As often as not, the fire will catch you. It does that. The challenge is learning how to channel it, how to direct it, and maintain it, banked and smoldering on a gray and rainy day of waiting.
I am only beginning to come up with my own approaches to this problem. One of them is everyday activism, trying to make better choices on an ongoing basis, in the hopes of contributing to gradual change. This approach is necessarily limited; I do not fall into the trap of believing that consumer choices alone will motivate the necessary developments, even in areas where my consumer choices can make a difference. At the same time, I need to focus on my personal work, and stay connected both to my everyday and to the bigger picture, so seeing my choices in both contexts is helpful.
Another approach is magic. The emotion that develops while waiting can be powerful fuel for magical energy, if I can direct it and not be overwhelmed by it. Gathering up and directing that emotion into energy for change is a powerful experience, and it is not limited to a single time and place; I can do magic for my purposes many times while waiting, and it can be a fruitful outlet.
I would love to hear about your own strategies for “keeping cool” in this sense. What I notice about the two approaches I have mentioned is that both are ways of nurturing hope. Concentrating on my smaller individual choices helps me hope. Doing magic can change emotions of frustration, anger, and even fear into energy that sustains my hope for a different outcome. I think that’s the underlying message that I’m learning about sustaining activism and keeping cool: when I’m not acting, I’m hoping.