Sometimes bloggers will ask me to write a bit about my thoughts on a particular issue…and, being longwinded, I usually have a hard time coming up with a a concise quote. Tim Titus asked a really pertinent question and I had a lot of answer, so here’s the full text of what I wrote in response.
The issue is activism, overwhelm, burnout, and magic.
Tim Titus asked me:
“There are so many pressing social, environmental, human rights, and justice issues across the world right now that it can be hard to keep up. Many witches and other magickal people want to help, but the problems seem so widespread and so intractable that it can be hard to know where to start. Sometimes that leads us to just give up. How do you choose issues to take action on? Knowing that we can’t always physically lend aid, What magickal acts can you suggest to help heal some of the world’s most difficult problems?”
Here’s the original blog post on Tim’s site along with some great quotes from other Pagans.
This topic something I think about a lot. I’ve suffered various types of burnout not just as an activist but as an event planner, as an artist, and a writer. Specifically as an activist, I’ve learned to limit my focus. When I worry about all the ills of the world I get overwhelmed, stressed out, and I freeze up. In fact, as a kid I was so hypersensitive that seeing TV commercials with the starving kids in Ethiopia would make me physically ill. As an adult, I realized that watching the news stressed me out. In fact, I can’t even really watch TV shows about characters who are horrible people because I get too upset. I think about all the horrible people out there in the world and I want to just crawl into bed and hide.
While there are a lot of things in this world I’m concerned about, my activism in the past has primarily focused on environmental issues. While I’ve blogged and spoken about environmental activism to educate people how to live more sustainable lives, the bulk of my activism there has been through living more simply and reducing my own impact. I’ve also done a lot of what I’d call daily activism in the area of speaking up about privilege, bullying, racism, homophobia and transgender discrimination.
Impact on the Activist
Of late, my activism has focused a lot on supporting a sex positive culture and fighting rape culture, particularly within the Pagan umbrella. That’s a type of activism that works well with the resources I have at my disposal—social media, blogs, articles, and public speaking. I have written books, I have a following, and so I have a voice within the Pagan community/communities.
However, I’m the first to admit that this particular activism has also proven to be really emotionally exhausting. Whenever I put up a blog post taking someone to task or asking for accountability, and especially speaking up about sex and ethics issues, what folks might not realize is that I’m then dealing with days of intense comments. I’m dealing with the occasional hatemail, or even just long discussions with people who disagree with me. I value dissent, however, living my values and talking things out takes hours of time, and costs me in terms of stress and anxiety.
I also receive numerous messages from people who have been abused and who need someone to share their story with who will understand. Sometimes I’ll get a huge email from someone telling me about their story that they can’t speak up about because of the recriminations they will face. Other times people ask me to talk to them on the phone. And I’m honored that people feel safe checking in with me, but it is a lot of emotional weight to carry.
So every time I post one of those really intense articles or blog posts, we’re talking at least a full-time day of managing comments and emails, and about a week of what I’d sum up as emotional fallout.
What’s the impact on my life? Well, I’m mostly a hermit.
As an introvert, one of my primary coping mechanisms to avoid stress is simple; I avoid people most of the time. The more anxiety I have in my life, the harder it is for me to have the emotional resources to do things like simple social events. The impact on my life is that speaking up about these things and dealing with the fallout makes it hard for me to write, paint, or design–in other words, to do the things that bring in income.
The impact on my life is that the more stress I’m under, the harder it is for me to want to teach workshops at a Pagan Pride, or to organize a class or workshop in my local community, or even to go out on a date.
I value the work that I’m doing, and I acknowledge that activism is sacrifice. To build the world I want, I’m willing to let a little bit of my own blood. I mean that metaphorically in terms of my own energy. In other words, I’m willing to exchange some of my own life force to bring about the change; no change ever happened by everybody being comfortable. Someone has to sit in the wrong spot on the bus, drink from the water fountain, chain yourself to the tree, blow the whistle.
But, the various shaming, victim blaming, and other crap that I deal with has begun to edge toward “more than I’m willing to give.”
How Does Magic Help?
To the question of what magical acts I can suggest…that’s probably the toughest part of this question, because my relationship to the word “magic” is complicated. Or rather—I have struggled the past years to redefine magic for myself. I look at magic as understanding the mysteries of how the world works behind the scenes. I see magic as the power of transformation. Thus, I understand magic mostly in the sense of, determining a goal, and marshaling my resources (energetic, mental, and physical) toward that goal.
However, in the Pagan community, I experience that many people use the word “magic” to mean, “Imagining that I’m sending energy to something when I’m not willing to do the actual work to make it happen.”
So I tend to be leery of using the word “magic” in terms of activism.
Here’s the thing. Changing the world isn’t easy, and it takes a lot of work. There’s setting intention, and then there’s the physical work to do it. That’s part of magic too. While rituals and spells absolutely serve to set that intention, they also aren’t the whole package. You can’t say, “I want to heal the earth,” and then keep drinking bottled water and using resources the way most people do.
Once, years ago, I was asked to facilitate an earth healing ritual at a festival, and I likely will never do so again.Why? Because years later, the people of that festival leave piles of trash behind them when they return home. They eagerly discuss all year long all the extra camping supplies they’ll bring, and they load in tons of things like flats of bottled water and beer, and then they fail to even sort their recycling.
Maybe the ritual helped inspire some of them reduce their use of resources…but I think for most of them it was a way to fell like they were doing something to heal the earth, when they really weren’t. I think for most of them it was a “feel good” ritual.
Magic and Dedication
If you want magic, if you want change, it requires dedication. One of the daily pieces of magic that I do is speaking the truth. What I mean by that is, I’ve taken a vow to—as best I can—speak the truth. And that’s far more complicated than you might think. However, over time, this means that my words have more power, more magic, more ability to transform the world.
Here’s an example. Most people say, “I have to go do ___.” Do you have to? Or, are you choosing to? It doesn’t matter if the task is unpleasant and you’d rather not. Today I chose to go to the Post Office and spend $100 mailing out packages. I didn’t have to, I chose to. Many people say, “I have to go visit family for the holidays.” Or when asked if they can help with something, people will make up an excuse. “Oh, I can’t, I’m washing my hair.” We tell lies all the time.
I work to speak the truth, even when it’s awkward. I try to keep my tongue clean of lies and half truths. It not only builds up my personal magic, but my relentless honesty is part of what gives my blogs, articles, and public speaking their power. People believe me because they know I speak the truth. And–to speak the truth here, I don’t always manage it. I do my best to speak the truth whenever possible, but there are times when I slip up and speak the easy white lie or the half truth. But this is something I work hard at.
It takes daily commitment, and this is just one of my daily practices. Other consistent magical practices I engage in are relentless personal work and shadow work.
I suppose what I mean is, I think people mistake “magic” for “easy.” Magic is still work. However—what I would say is two things if you are finding yourself overwhelmed.
- If you are finding yourself overwhelmed by all the pain out there, you might need to take some space and work on your boundaries. You might need to say “No, I can’t help with that” for a while. And you might need to look at what activism to focus on, which is both looking at what you are most passionate about, and where you can have the most impact. There are a lot of different types of activism. I go back to the axiom, Know Thyself. Focus on what you care about, not on what you “should” be helping with. If you focus on the “shoulds” you’ll lose energy fast. Focus on where your fire is; your passion for the cause is your fuel. A good rule of thumb is, if it doesn’t piss you off, it’s probably not your calling.
- The other thing is that there is some magic that is really effective at transforming ourselves to keep our spirits up.
Magic for Centering
As someone who struggles with depression and anxiety, I admit I don’t always use the tools at my disposal. Some of the tools that come from magic and ritual that are excellent for centering ourselves and keeping our spirits up include listening to music, and especially singing along to music or singing chants, using singing bowls…sound is incredibly powerful magic and can help you shift your mood from sad/anxious/depressed and into a more focused head space where you are making better decisions. Light a candle, light incense, do some intentional movement like Yoga or Tai Chi or exercise or go out dancing, or other forms of meditation.
I call this “short term” magic; the various actions we perform when doing ritual, spellwork, or personal devotional practice aren’t necessarily going to change the world in the long term, but they’re going to help you to be able to center and keep your focus so that you can sustain doing the work.
Magic and the Vision of the Future
Overall, a lot of magic is about knowing what the goal is, and looking at how you will approach working toward transforming yourself and the world to support that goal. And—for some of the big activism, there’s the realization that you will die with the work unfinished.
Let me tell you, that one’s hard. I’m still working with wrapping my head around that one. Look at the goals, and look at what you can, as an individual, reasonably accomplish. Keeping focus may help you to reduce your overwhelm.
I wish I could say pretty things here. I wish I could say it gets easier, but the truth is, most activists burn out. The truth is, most activists end up pissing people off because they are vocal about what they’d like to see change and speaking up about issues. The truth is, many activists have a hard time sleeping because they see shit running through their brain and can’t shut it off. Many activists have a hard time being happy because they are so sensitive tot he pain in the world around them. Because they see past the curtain. They see the Matrix Code, as it were.
I’m writing this at a point of some serious activist burnout on my part. Writing about sex and ethics and leadership ethics in the Pagan community and having so many people tell me they’ve been sexually abused…and so many other people say that they still support leaders/teachers who are abusive. Or people saying that if you take sexually abusive practices out of their tradition it’s destroying their tradition…seeing so many verbally abusive Pagan leaders out there…it’s wearying.
When I post a blog about the abuses I went through with my ex fiance, I will have people simultaneously message me and yell at me to say, “Quit defending him, you keep making excuses for him,” and others messaging me saying, “Quit your whining, you blame everything on him, I’m sick of your woe-is-me posts.” And far worse messages, and the occasional threat.
I’m not really doing a good job with this post on selling people on being an activist, am I?
However, here’s why I keep at it. Because if I don’t, who will do this work? If I don’t act, can I look at myself in the mirror? Can I look into the faces of the next generation and feel like I did my best?
Callings aren’t easy. But somebody’s gotta do it.
For another great post on determining where to focus your energy as an activist, and when to hold a boundary, check out my friend Lauren’s post on Pagan Activist.