Activists, Beware: Burnout is a Very Real Danger

Posted on July 30, 2019 By

by Rachel MacNair

Part 2 of 2 posts responding to Ward Ricker’s essay, “Prolife – Not.” Here’s Part 1.


Ward Ricker’s main point is: haven’t pro-lifers been ineffective because we’ve sent mixed messages? Mainly, we’re proclaiming an abortion to be the murder of an innocent child, and yet our behavior shows we’re not taking it that seriously. We’d drop everything to pull people we can see out of a burning building, after all. So why are we so cheerful and nice about it, when at the same time, we’re asserting this is mass slaughter?


Philosophy: Our Musings

I copy here comments responding to Ward’s point from other members of the Consistent Life Network board of directors and advisory board:

Carol Crossed:

I believe Ward’s words are insightful. I recall when a bunch of 40+ were arrested at the Pentagon with Daniel Berrigan in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima Nagasaki.  We were on this bus being taken away to the detention center and we were chatting and laughing.  This woman stood up and said something to the effect that can we not be reflective?  Do we really treat this as a picnic outing?  The bus fell silent.  After a few minutes, Berrigan said in his deep slow way, well, she has a point.  Are we doing this because we want to feel good, or are we doing this because we have just witnessed evil?

Richard Stith:

. . . If your social view is in general perceived to be that of the Establishment or at least be winning, you can be as angry and mean and hateful as you like and you won’t suffer for it. But if your social movement is perceived to be non-Establishment or even to be losing ground, you have to be extra-extra nice in order to be heard. That is why most anti-slavery people in the north were not fire-breathing abolitionists. They couldn’t show rightful outrage against slavery and still be respectable. . . .

The bottom line strategically and tactically for us is this: We should never neglect to state and show the full horror of abortion while at the same time being hopeful and friendly. That’s tough to do. So we should be tolerant of fellow pro-lifers who err in one direction or the other.

Lisa Stiller:

I’m having trouble with this whole discussion, as it’s like saying you have given up on opposing war because protestors aren’t angry enough. Or given up opposing the death penalty because opponents are too calm.

If you don’t oppose violence because you don’t like the way people are opposing it, you really don’t oppose violence. It’s about the concept and morality of opposing killing. Nothing else.

Philosophy: My Musings

My first reaction is that I would in fact drop everything and focus on a woman who was considering an abortion, if I saw it as possible I could prevent it. Sidewalk advocates, of course, put themselves deliberately in that situation all the time. Yet the last-ditch effort when an abortion process is already in motion isn’t as good as getting there long in advance, so the woman never considers abortion or so that she tells those people trying to pressure her into one to quit bugging her. So all the nonviolent and honest actions of the entire pro-life movement are needed. But those are all long-term, constant, steady – not an immediate emergency.

I would make a comparison to how the media extensively covers mass shootings, which only happen now and then. Yet currently many times as many people will have been killed in Yemen that same day. And every day. There’s a war there. Wars don’t get the day-to-day coverage that an isolated incident does. When something that would be an emergency if it happened only once becomes commonplace, then opposing it becomes part of your lifestyle.

And there’s never been a time in history when there weren’t massive numbers of killings. Feticide and infanticide have been common in most places throughout history, as have wars, executions, and lynchings, to name a few. Anyone in any historical period who cared about people not getting killed has always had to include that opposition as part of her or his lifestyle.

Which leads us to what happens when opposing killing must be a life-long commitment.

Psychology: Burnout

Burnout has three components:

Emotional exhaustion — feeling overwhelmed by emotional demands. Ward’s argument that we should treat the constant killing as a constant emergency is bound to provoke this.

Depersonalization — development of a detached, callous response. So, as an example, when a client complained about not having Christmas presents for her children, the social worker snapped at her to go shoplift something – a markedly unhelpful response, and a sign of burnout. And Ward similarly snaps at fellow pro-lifers. He makes valid points and illustrates them with pertinent experiences, but we’ve all had those frustrations. As I said in Part 1, all social movements have the problem of being less effective than they could be, because they’re run by human beings. When the response isn’t to try to improve that problem but to drop out of the movement, that’s a sign of burnout.

Feeling of reduced personal accomplishment —and reduced social movement accomplishment. Given the high stakes, the sense that we’re just not getting anywhere is a sign of burnout.

What I see is that Ward has offered a recipe for burnout, and then unsurprisingly shows that he’s suffering from it.

Ward, you haven’t asked my advice, but this I offer anyway: you need a good long break, which you should regard not as stopping work on the movement but replenishing yourself for the long haul.

Then, when ready to get back in, follow the advice for everyone below. I think you’d be especially well equipped to address your concern that the balance of atheists in the pro-life movement is insufficient. Atheists are obviously better suited to appeal to other atheists than non-atheists are.

For Everyone: Avoiding and Coping with Burnout

These are the basics, as those studying the problem (mainly, Christina Maslach) have figured out:

1. Work smarter, not harder. As when going uphill, it’s better to shift gears than to use more gas.

a. Set specific, realistic steps.

When a step is done, one can see that progress has been made. The final goal may be years, decades, or perhaps centuries away. Define accomplishments in concrete terms. Have daily, weekly, or monthly goals that can reasonably be done in that time frame.

b. Do the same thing differently.

Avoid ruts. Find what can be varied, and experiment with what’s effective. The change may improve effectiveness, and can be abandoned if not.

c. Take breaks and rest periods.

In addition to needed relaxation, this gives a chance to get some mental distance to get some perspective, to see things more coolly.

d. Take a “downshift.”

Not a full break, but doing other aspects of the work. Do paperwork or read; organize files; do some cleaning.

2. Caring for Oneself. The best way to help others is to be in good shape.

a. Accentuate the positive.

Finding the good makes the bad less overwhelming.

b. Small talk is important.

It may be irrelevant, but helps people manage.

c. Ask for positive feedback.

d. Know yourself.

Be in tune to inner feelings.

e. Use relaxation techniques.

The best to use is the one that fits you well.

f. Use humor.

It helps you keep perspective and lifts spirits.


Yet all this is exactly what goes against Ward’s point: how can we be humorous when babies are being killed? How can we relax and engage in small talk? What positive things don’t pale in comparison to the horror of it all? Doesn’t that communicate that we don’t really believe what we say when we say it’s massive slaughter?

But the results are in: those of us who use these techniques to keep ourselves sane are still working, and Ward has dropped out. The very fact that he feels the need to drop out shows the inadvisability of his approach.

Burnout is something all activists on every issue need to be aware of. We need to take care of ourselves – not for selfish reasons, but because it makes us more effective. We’re in it for the long haul.



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  1. Ward Ricker says:

    I have not burned out. I have lots of energy left. I am simply accepting the message that prolifers have been sending for years — the real message, that is, and the one that every one out there is getting (albeit subconsciously; they wouldn’t be able to tell you this), and the reason abortion continues. But that’s alright. Abortion is fine. I have accepted their message.

  2. Caleb says:

    To recognize the seriousness of abortion yet not burn out I remind myself of my limitations and of God’s sovereignty. God has this – yes he is allowing horrible wrongs to go on (for now), but I still trust he does all things well. I will not be indifferent though, because I also am reminded that God does care – John 3:16 – and it is my profound privilege to participate with him in caring, in reaching out.

  3. Jim Forest says:

    I once wrote Thomas Merton when I was on the edge of burnout and got an extremely helpful response. See:

  4. Tom Hoffman says:

    I read Ward Ricker’s essay (albeit hurriedly- I’ll probably want to go back to it later), and he does make good points; so does Rachel MacNair. What I’m going to say may not apply to the Pro-Life movement specifically- I wish to address Mr Ricker’s concerns from the Consistent Life Ethic perspective.

    By definition, the CLE outlook focusses on several different but related issues which threaten the lives of human beings. Those of us in the CLE are all too aware that, while many or most folks agree with us on some issues, they definitely don’t on others. If we take an abrasive or overly-passionate or flat-out angry attitude over abortion and euthanasia, I would think that consistency would require us to adopt the same attitude when discussing our other concerns with people who disagree with us.

    Maybe some people on the other side of a given issue would, in fact, find anger more convincing than a polite discussion; I don’t know. But as for me, it doesn’t impress me favorably at all if someone who disagrees with me on a given issue is flying off the handle. (I’ve had my share of run-ins with angry pro-choicers, and- God help me!- a small part of me was glad when Donald Trump was elected because I knew those folks I butted heads with were probably having meltdowns… not that I voted for Trump…)

    Although I understand how someone could question that we really believe “abortion is murder” if we’re not screaming about it, I don’t see how we’ll ever reach many people if we’re as confrontational as Mr Ricker suggests.

  5. Tom Taylor says:

    Thanks for this blog and discussion. It has been very helpful to me. I found the Jim Forest essay especially illuminating. Like most things in life, it seems to be about trying to maintain an appropriate balance.

    I also am wondering if another key aspect, like dialogue, of Consistent Life Ethic practice is–as Rachel alluded–examining, reconciling and forgiving our limitations–in ourselves, in the various pro-life, peace and other groups, and the whole movement–and then just doing the best we can to adapt and improve.

  6. Bill Samuel says:

    Yes, Tom, and also realizing there isn’t just one approach to working on an issue. CLN is a network. We state, “We challenge those working on all or some of these issues to maintain a cooperative spirit of peace, reconciliation, and respect in protecting the unprotected.” We encourage those with different nonviolent approaches lived out in integrity to regard those working on the same issues with a different approach not as competition but as part of the tapestry of the movement that is better for the diversity of approaches.

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