Because you can’t care about everything: Activist burnout, guilt and love

You can’t care about everything.

That’s not quite true. You and I can care about a lot of things. Some things hit closer to home than others, but whenever I hear about something terrible or unfair I care about it. I care about manifold oppressions, sick kids, poverty, natural disasters. The person who just missed the bus on a rainy day. The people languishing unfairly in prison. The people being denied basic rights, or dealing with insidious unconscious prejudices that people don’t even know that they have. It’s all unfair. It’s all horrible. It all needs someone to do something about it.

You can’t care about everything.

Those of us of an activist or social justice bent, I think, can often get overwhelmed. We’re a bunch self-selected to notice things that are wrong with the world and to want to do something about it. We also tend to be reasonably aware of how we can do something. From writing to organising to protesting to lobbying to educating- we tend to have learned where our strengths lie and how we can use them to best effect. We learn whether we’re firebrands or diplomats, whether we prefer to work on the front lines or behind the scenes. We learn how to organise or how to work alone, how to connect and learn and push forward change.

I think that it can take us a long time to learn that we can’t care about everything.

Activism is hard work. Making meaningful change is harder. Every step forward is carved out as if through solid stone, little bit by little bit. Winning hearts, educating and changing minds on a society-wide scale can take years or decades. And most of it is always unpaid or underpaid work done in between the cracks of our lives.

It’s hard for us to learn our limits. If we know how to create change, that it won’t happen unless someone steps up, and that it needs to happen? It’s immensely difficult to step back and say no when you’re the kind of person who’s used to spending their time stepping forward. Especially when we know that the things that we do spend our time on are no more deserving than those we need to say no to. Especially when we can see the consequences of nothing or not enough being done. How real they are, how they impact people’s lives. How much hurt can be caused.

It’s something I notice even with this little blog of mine. Blogging can be an immensely engaging thing to do. For me, it’s all about communication and connection, reading and writing and sharing ideas. Learning about new issues, researching them, consolidating and sharing. And over the course of that, you find out about an awful lot of things. I can’t write about everything. Even now, when I haven’t got a job, I simply wouldn’t have the time. I wouldn’t have the energy, mental or emotional.

There’s a kind of emotional burnout that comes from taking in too many things that move you, I think. Especially when you then want to consolidate them into a post that makes sense, is decently constructed and readable. So you- I- have to pick and choose.

It seems arrogant in a way. Like somehow I could save the world with my keyboard if I only had the time. I don’t think that I can, by the way. But I do feel a lot of the time that if only I had the spoons to write just one more piece, I might be able to have enough conversations to make a little dent in things.

You can’t care about everything, though.

I once read an article- I can’t quite remember where- about how activists can sometimes run on guilt. We see our lives and how privileged we are, or we see the magnitude of what we’re up against, and we run ourselves ragged. We don’t let ourselves rest. But the thing about running on guilt is that you’re never going to run out of it. You’ll never hit the magic place where you’ve finally fixed all the things and you can rest. There’ll always be some more work that needs to be done.

I have a feeling that we might do better working from a place of love, as cheesy as it sounds. Guilt never leaves any space for self-care. Love does. If we work from love, then we can mind ourselves, find balance, devote time to the people and things that give us joy, work out what we have to spare and save our activism for that space. Working from a place of love, we can care about everything without feeling like it needs to be us fixing everything right here and now.

Because if activism is about making the world a better place, it’s no good if we don’t take care of our own lives. If we neglect our loved ones or ourselves, we’re not really making the world a better place- just the world outside. If we guilt-trip ourselves for not being able to do that little bit more, we’re making our own selves a worse place to be.

It’s hard to know that you can’t fix everything. It’s even harder to be okay with that. But I think that accepting that is the only way that it’s possible to appreciate what you really can do. To, instead of beating yourself up over what you can’t do, feel happy about the change you do make. And I think that’s important. Not so that activists can sit around feeling smug about ourselves. But so that we can allow ourselves a bit of peace. A bit of happiness. A bit of space to love.

What do you think? Do you think I’m on to something? If you do activism, how do you reconcile it all? 

Because you can’t care about everything: Activist burnout, guilt and love

7 thoughts on “Because you can’t care about everything: Activist burnout, guilt and love

  1. 1

    Great piece. I would add that learning to love yourself (to be cheesy, once again) is very important before you can learn to really love, or understand, others. I’m talking about really knowing and accepting who we are, and why we’ve chosen to go into activism. Are we trying to prove something? Do we have high expectations? What is our end goal? Or is it more the process of activism that matters? These questions need to be asked. And you’re right – many activists are coming from a place of guilt, which can lead to worthy and heroic actions but ones which ultimately risk their lives and emotional wellbeing. Sometimes we need to address our own fragilities if we are to be truly effective in addressing the problems of others. Thanks for listing my transitioninmotion blog post.

  2. 2

    Love this. People always make fun of me because I’m “too sensitive” of everything in the world, particularly in regards to sexism, racism, etc. It’s frustrating because I care so much about doing the right thing and wanting to help but it’s like society only wants help to a point. It’s like I’m constantly being warned not to cross the line.

  3. 3

    Loving deeply and with great passion is the only way to live and that includes living as an activist. The problem with activists running on guilt is that while it is never ending, it is toxic. Love never runs out either – we don’t have a finite supply. And rather than making us feel bad about ourselves – hurting us, love builds us up, energizes us. That is not to say it has some magical power to make everything better, make us successful or prevent us from burning out, it assuredly does not. But love will make us better, more functional in whatever we endeavor to accomplish.

  4. 4

    I love this article, and it sometimes I struggle a lot to come to terms with. And not just in terms of activism, but in terms of hobbies and interests in general. You can’t pursue it all, you can’t learn about it all, you can’t care about it all, and that is really really hard to accept.

  5. 6

    This. Absolutely.

    I feel like some of the most powerful activists I know run on grief, rather than guilt. Grief is a hard thing, too, but it’s ultimately based in love — based in sadness over the loss of things we love, of people we love, of compassion for other peoples’ loss.

    Guilt, on the other hand, often seems based in fear; the fear we’re not good enough, the fear we’ll be judged, the fear we’ll fail, etc. Fear is a kind of stop-energy. It creates mental blocks. Grief is a powerful, overwhelming expression of love, of sadness because we really believe the world could be better and it’s not, and unlike guilt, I think it has a lot more space in it for forgiveness, rest, and self-care.

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