Activists, Beware: Burnout is a Very Real Danger
by Rachel MacNair
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:
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?
. . . 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.
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.
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.