Social Justice and the Healthy Self: Starting the Conversation

Social justice work is supposed to be selfless, right?

We’re out there trying to make the world a better place for everybody. The work demands all that we have to give – and then some.

For those of us driven by a passion for social justice – whether our work is religious or secular –  the needs of the world are so great that they tend to eclipse any focus on ourselves, on our own wellbeing and balance.

Organizing and activism and protest and movement building.
Speaking and arguing and writing and fundraising.
Issues and outrage.
Showing up and showing up again
and showing up again.

Caring a lot.
Caring so much,
even when it’s frustrating,
even when it seems futile,
even when the world feels like a bleak, dark, mean place.

It’s the work we do.

And when we’re tempted to set it aside for a minute to tend to our own needs or our family’s needs, it’s mighty easy to feel guilty about that. For most people I know, that guilt is self-imposed (‘but I’m not doing ENOUGH’). Yet if we happen to escape the self-imposed guilt, there’s usually someone around to raise an eyebrow. We’re supposed to be selfless.

Except there’s a problem.

We can’t be selfless. We are always our own selves. I carry my physical body, emotions, spiritual life, mental processing and cognition, personal and professional relationships, personality quirks, and history and experiences with me everywhere I go.

All of this is a part of me. I can ignore it – until something happens and I can’t ignore it any longer. Or I can work with it with in community with as much honesty, grace, and wisdom as I can muster and develop.

I am not suggesting feeding our own egos just for the sake of their insatiable ego-appetite. I’m talking about equilibrium. About integrity – not integrity-honesty (well, that too), but integrity as in structural integrity. Something that’s not going to fall in on itself when the winds or waves pick up or the ground starts to tremble beneath us.

There’s always a danger of self-indulgence. It can happen. But it’s much less likely to happen when we find equilibrium and stay both nimble and grounded. Most of us operate in communities that help keep us accountable. That also means that those communities need to recognize the need for the care of their members.

We work best when our mandate to care extends to ourselves and to the others around us. Better work – more honest, wise, and skillfully executed – comes from a better place.

Our selves are our strengths – they are our wit and wisdom, our intelligence, intensity, and insights, our willing hands and reflective consciousness. It’s our laughter and our joy. It’s our role as friend, parent, partner, spouse, cousin, neighbor, congregant, or student.

If we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of anybody or anything else.

I’ve been a part of many conversations over the last few months and years that have dwelled on issues in the social justice community of physical health, mental health, burnout, despair (both personal and global), financial insecurity, family stress, nagging guilt, and spiritual melancholy. I hear how we’ve made an idol of busy-ness (a problem endemic in the larger culture as well). I hear how people are tired, aching physically and emotionally, overwhelmed with worry, and utterly joyless, how they mean to but don’t address their own spiritual malaise and critical health needs.

I bear witness to the transgender activists who have committed suicide over the last year and to Ohio Black Lives Matter organizer MarShawn McCarre who shot himself on the state capitol steps last week. We don’t take time to eat right, move our bodies, and kick back and enjoy good company. And if we do, we worry that we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do. I heard 3 different parents in one day lament that they feel like they’re neglecting social justice work because they are (wisely, rightly) tending to their young children.

We need to fix that. We need to change the narrative. The work will continue. It must continue. But we must also create a sustainable paradigm for social justice work. We must make a priority of our own health and wellbeing, our own deep joy, and our life-giving relationships with others.

There’s much more to say about this multi-faceted topic. Over the next few weeks, I will be writing in greater depth about different aspects of the problem. I’ll be posting other things as well, but these posts can be found  under the ‘social justice and the healthy self’ category.

I’d love to hear from social-justice oriented organizers and activists and clergy and academics about their thoughts and experiences on this topic. The About/Contact tab at the top of the page is one way to get in touch with me – and folks who know me can also reach out by other means.

Let’s work on this – for our own sake and for the sake of the causes we care so deeply about.