25. Tools for Change #III: A Created Community

As you have by now heard me say numerous times, a key factor separating successful from unsuccessful people is that the former surround themselves with supportive, encouraging people, while the latter surround themselves with skeptics and nay-sayers. Whom we choose to associate with is one of our most crucial life decisions, for two reasons:

• We tend to live up, or down, to the expectations of those around us.

• It takes tremendous energy and toughness to maintain a positive view of yourself and your values when you are surrounded by people who constantly criticize you or put you down. Defending yourself from these kinds of attacks is not only draining, but a misuse of your time and energy, which would be better spent doing activism or some other part of your Mission.

That’s why you have heard me say repeatedly throughout The Lifelong Activist that it is vital to “dump” unsupportive people from your life, and as quickly as possible. If they are friends, acquaintances or coworkers, ease out of the relationship. If they are family members, try to scale back the relationship—although, if they are really toxic and unsupportive, you may need to cease all contact, at least temporarily. One friend of mine, who was raised in a family that is highly conservative, moved three thousand miles away so that he could have the mental freedom and space to develop into his own person. That takes courage and determination, and I am filled with admiration for him.

Please note that, although I use the harsh-sounding word “dump” in the above paragraph to indicate urgency, I always advocate acting with compassion. If you have to leave a relationship behind, ease out of it gently, and always open the possibility of reconciliation. The person you are leaving behind is traveling his own path, and—who knows?—maybe your paths will one day lead you back in each other’s direction, especially if he sees you leading a happy, fulfilled, balanced life. If that happens, you want to be there to welcome and encourage him.

Getting rid of naysayers is only half the battle, however. You need to replace them with a supportive community. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this community will magically accrue around you if you just do your own thing. You need to create your community, and manage it.

The major categories of people you want in your Created Community include mentors, family, friends, colleagues and helping professionals. Mentors are a very important topic that I discuss separately in the following chapter, but I discuss the other categories briefly below.

Family

Family is such a delicate topic for activists, since many of us have families who are hostile to our values and life choices. I hear more anguish from activists on the subject of families than anything else.

Most people have two families: the one they grew up in, and the one they create as adults. Psychologists and sociologists theorize about what constitutes a “family,” but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s just say that “family comes first.” If a family member is in need, that trumps all other requests for your time and attention.

We are all familiar with the traditional type of “created family”: a spouse or partner; perhaps some kids or companion animals. If this is the kind of family you aspire to, please make sure that the person you choose for your spouse or partner is 100 percent supportive of your Mission. An unsupportive spouse is one of the worst, most painful and hardest-to-solve Situational Obstacles.

Many activists create a different kind of family. They cultivate a group of very special friends whom they know will support them in good times and bad; and whom they, in turn, commit to supporting. This can be an informal, or formalized, family relationship.

Especially if you are distanced from your birth family, it is very important for you to create some kind of family for yourself. Although rare individuals are able to thrive and be productive in isolation, most of us cannot, and we suffer if we remain too long in isolation.

Friends

People are social to varying degrees, and so you may seek out only a few very close friends, or a wider circle. Either is OK, provided your relationships are healthy and don’t interfere with your personal growth and success. Just three reminders:

1. As discussed in Part II, a “party animal” lifestyle is generally inimical to success at an ambitious endeavor.

2. So is a “doormat” or “go-to person” lifestyle in which you cannot or will not say “No” to requests that interfere with your ability to Manage your Mission or Time.

3. Someone who undermines or harshly criticizes you is not a friend, regardless of what they say their motives are. Friends have a responsibility not just to objectively state the truth—including, perhaps, unpleasant truths—about your behavior, but to do so in a compassionate, supportive way. They also have a responsibility to praise you and acknowledge your achievements.

Wonderful friendships not only bring light and color to our lives, they sustain us through the inevitable dark moments. Don’t settle for less!

Colleagues

It’s a sad fact that some of the people who treat activists worst are other activists.

Don’t let anyone abuse you. That includes other activists, and I don’t care how illustrious their achievements or credentials are, or how awe-inspiring their intellectual framework. Recognize that it is possible, and all too common, for someone to be highly effective and evolved in some areas of life, and highly ineffective and unevolved in others.

Many activist organizations are badly run, and treat their employees and volunteers badly as a result. If you are involved with an organization and are being treated badly, leave it. Get a non-activist job if you have to, and do activism part-time. Don’t worry: another opportunity to do full-time activism will eventually present itself.

If another activist criticizes you harshly for being insufficiently committed or dedicated, or for any other reason, ignore her. If you want, you can try to help her examine her own problem of intolerance, but if she’s resistant, don’t waste too much time on this—just walk away. It’s probably more of a job for a therapist, anyway.

And, needless to say, don’t abuse or attack others—especially other activists. There is simply no excuse for doing so. Recognize that your anger and intolerance probably stem from childhood, and that you may be using your activism as a rationalization to support this ingrained defensive behavior. As someone who has spent years dealing with her own anger issues, I urge you to deal with yours—not just for your own sake, but for the sake of those around you, and your movement.

Helping Professionals

By helping professionals, I mean, first of all, a doctor and therapist. Add to that, perhaps, a dentist, ophthalmologist, nutritionist, massage therapist, spiritual advisor or anyone else you consult about your physical and mental health.

I also mean good personal-finance and insurance help. You may not like to focus on these issues, but, as discussed in Part I, they exist whether you focus on them or not, and ignoring them inevitably leads to trouble. You may have to hire someone with these forms of expertise, or you may be able to consult a family member, coworker or friend for free. Just make sure you’re getting quality advice—and getting it as part of your life planning, not only after you find yourself in a jam—recalling, once more, that poverty has probably ended more activist careers than anything else.