Your ego is ruining your activism (and you)
I was hanging out with my friend Tom, best-selling author & comics mentor extraordinaire, last week, and we returned to a conversation that we've been having for the 15ish years we've known each other. Tom recognizes that, as a cishet white guy, he's got some privilege in the world. And because he's got an endlessly giant heart and cares about the world, he wants to make sure he's making the most of his time on Earth by being active in social justice movements. And because he's a masochist, he's constantly convinced that he's not doing enough. After all, look around! The world is on fire! Some parts of it feel worse than ever!
Clearly, this is all Tom's fault. Tom, as a founder of an art school, an incredible author and teacher, and a partner & a father, has failed us all, because by donating when he can afford to, going to protests when he can, signing petitions, writing about issues on his social media, and volunteering and voting for good people, he hasn't fixed everything.
Thanks a LOT, Tom.
Talking through it with him, it became clear that part of what was troubling him was feeling like he wasn't having any impact, or at least none that he could see or feel. He wanted to know that his effort mattered, and that it wasn't just a frivolous exercise in good liberalism. We all know intellectually that our own activism is a drop in the giant bucket of big-picture social movements, but we also want to feel it.
There are a few ways to look at that wanting-to-feel-it. Here are some that I came up with; this is mostly for my homies that are steeped in social justice work in one way or another, so if you're new to activism, this might be a little too in-the-weeds for you. Don't worry! Your time to feel ashamed of your own tiny contributions to world peace will come.
First, let's clarify the difference between a few types of activist-y behavior. The most shallow of all behaviors is cookie-seeking. These are actions you take or things you say because you know they're the "right" things to say and do, and because doing them might earn you some good will. Think: the politician who says, "I condemn racism in all its forms" but never takes any serious action or puts themselves on the line. This is almost entirely a transactional deed: if I say x, these people will approve of me/like me. And that's gross.
But! Seeking validation or response from your activism is not inherently bad or selfish. There's a spectrum of behaviors—it's not black and white. (I really hate how right my therapist is about this, and I tell her that almost every week.) We need to recognize that humans are wired to be social, and we naturally seek out responses from fellow humans as a way of navigating our social contract with each other, and with society. To me, it's OK to feel that need, as long as we recognize what it is, and aren't seeking something transactional out of it.
[If you want to really go deep on this stuff, Michael Schur spends a huge chunk of time examining the moral and ethical repercussions of seeking validation for good deeds in his book How to Be Perfect, and it's easily one of the funniest reads I've had in a while. To wit: "A Kantian double whammy! He'd probably be so psyched about how bad we're being, that freak."]
However... I can't let us totally off the hook yet, either. I also feel like there's a common thread that runs through a lot of social justice people that's kind of unhealthy, too. A lot of us tie our self-worth to our activism, plain and simple. We take these good values we have—fairness and equity for all!—and we want to act on them. So far, so good. But then we take our action, or lack thereof, as proof to ourselves that we are, or aren't, good people. We think we have to earn our keep on the planet, and if the planet is on fire, we think we've failed.
I disagree so deeply with the premise, I'm having a hard time finding the words. Here's a classic gif representing my disagreement instead.
Think of any of the people, or things, you're trying to "help" with your activism. Do they need to earn their keep? Do you hold them to the same crappy standards you're holding yourself? I suspect the answer is no.
You have to come at activism from a place where you feel inherently worthy of being here. Your starting point is your own worth, which is not a selfish way to approach things, believe it or not. When you start from a place of worthiness, you are drawing from a well that is far deeper, far sturdier than drawing from the place of need and validation-seeking. If you're empty of worth, and you're seeking to fill up that well with activism, you will never be fulfilled. You'll just keep going until you're burned out and used up, and when you get to THAT place, you're of no use to anyone or anything! Including yourself! And because you haven't worked out your own inherent self-worth, you'll also probably shame the crap out of yourself for not being "strong" enough to keep going. You'll be a mess! You might be a mess right now!
It's not that different than all the other ways we all try to fill up our missing self-worth with external things—food, booze, drugs, shopping, all of it. Does that mean we stop those activities altogether? No, it means we look at why we're doing things and make changes accordingly. Activists tend to think that because their addiction is "helping" people, that it's acceptable. Afraid not! Still unhealthy!
The other part of this is looking at the role our egos and our need to control the uncontrollable play in our activism. Existence mostly feels like it's out of our hands, in the big picture, and that is TERRIFYING. Sometimes activism helps us feel like we have control in systems that are overwhelmingly oppressive, that we were able to do something. And it's sometimes even true, when people organize and work together to defeat the bad guys! But if you depend on an immediate good outcome from your individual contributions to feel like you're OK and in control, you're gonna end up sorely disappointed and you're likelier to give up.
Don’t give up. Ditch your ego and get in, loser.
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