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how i learned to breathe under the crushing weight of oppression and activism

A comment today from someone saying how she feels like however much she’s doing, she should be doing more. More in terms of advocacy, activism, and other such stuff. And, honestly, I think this is one of the hardest things to grapple with when you start getting involved in social justice on any level. There is just so much oppression. So many people suffering and all of it interconnected in a deeply complex web that is utterly overwhelming. So much to know, so much to do, so much more to be done. This reality and the weight of it can crush you. This post is about how I learned to breathe and let this burden go.

I know I used ‘activism’ in the title but I still don’t really consider myself such, instead – as I’ve said repeatedly – I’m a philosopher. Can philosophy be activism? Sure. I don’t really care to nitpick about this though, since part of my main point here (and recently) has been that what I’m doing – philosophy – is enough. It doesn’t have to be ‘activism’ in order for it to be a valuable contribution to teh movement (not that I’m affiliated with any, but you know what I mean). Just as I’ve said that philosophy is my praxis. It is what I do and that is enough. But getting to this place was not easy.

There’s a lot to be said about the emotionally manipulative and coercive tactics that a lot of people use to try and engage people in their pet political issue. I’ve said a lot about this already, but this post isn’t going to be about that. Instead, this post is going to be about the internal pressure we put on ourselves to constantly do something and then do something more. The internal pressure that comes from truly caring about whatever issue. Because compassionate people, in seeing others suffer (even if under shared oppression), tend to want to do something to alleviate that suffering.

It just that there is so much suffering and so many different ways you can try to help. How do you pick who to help? How do you decide what to do? How do you know you’re doing enough? Is it ever ‘enough’? Especially when, in a broad sense, the suffering and oppression appears to continue unchanged.

The first problem with this spiraling sense of obligation and burden is that it quickly becomes paralyzing. When there’s so much to do and your abilities limited – and absolutely everyone has limits – the vastness of it all can make you stop with indecision. Who do you help? How do you help? What if you’re already doing x, but then realize that y is also important? Only to also learn that maybe you should do something about z, since it has a material impact on both x, y, and p. Wait, don’t forget about p…

And so you find yourself overwhelmed and unable to do anything because there is just Too Much. And you’re just one person. But you also have to go to that job so you can pay rent. Take care of your kid. Go to the store for some groceries. Basically: you still have to live your life…

There are two ways I cut through this paralysis:

The first is simply by picking something anything. The truth of the matter is that it doesn’t really matter what you decide to do, as long as you do something. Not to say that we don’t occassionally decide on actions that might add to the harm instead of alleviate it, but for me this is part of the learning process. You’ll only figure out what the right thing is if you are trying to do something. Maybe you learn its the wrong thing so you learn and try something else. But as has been noted by many people: doing nothing simply makes you complicit in maintaining the status quo. So pick one thing to do. Do it with an open heart and mind and a willingness to adapt and learn, if necessary.

The second way is to reduce the scale to something manageable. Stop trying to think of ways to end oppression, like as a general, abstract concept. Focus on something concrete, something that – if you work on it – you can actually observe changes in the real world. No single human is going to solve ‘oppression’. However, you might be able to help your local community create and/or maintain a community space. Or maybe you can just help that person over there pay their rent this month. Whatever scale you decide is comfortable for you, make sure to focus on solid, concrete things.

The second method, reducing the scale of your idealism, leads into another major strategy, for me, which is accepting my limitations and learning to recognize that what I do is enough. I don’t need to do ‘more’ because I’m doing what I can. Could I do more? Maybe. Probably. Could I do more without harming myself? No. Not really.

And note: this isn’t about self-care, not necessarily. For me? This is about survival. I can’t do more because I need to pay my rent and feed myself. I can’t do more because I too, am a person who deserves to live. I can’t do more because my health matters. My ability to enjoy life matters. My ability to live matters. It isn’t that I think my life is worth ‘more than’ those I oppress (or ppl with shared oppression who are suffering more), bu t it is worth something. To me, at least.

The sad reality is that we live in a world wherein people will watch you burn yourself out and destroy your life, watch you die and sacrifice everything, in attempting to help others. They’ll watch you and do not much at all to help. For me, what fundamentally changed was realizing that if I try to exist within a value system wherein I believe that everyone is human and all humans deserve to live in dignity and freedom, this has to include me.

In recent years, I’ve seen a lot of people talk about the issue of ‘disposability’ in activism. But few people frame this as a personal, internal issue intimately connected with the community dynamics that also feed into it. To radically believe that people aren’t disposible, that ‘they’ aren’t tools to be used up, it has to start (or at least include) you. We aren’t disposable.

I think the saddest thing about oppression is that, given what it is, and how it impacts community dynamics, if we don’t start treating our own lives and selves as precious and worth protecting, the total number of people who do believe this might actually be ‘zero’. This is something I’ve learned the hard way. And so the application of my values and ethics starts with me. I believe that all ppl are humans who should live free and with dignity. I am a person, so….