9. How Much Activism Do You Really Want to Do?

Many activists, and especially many young activists, see the enormous amount of injustice and suffering in the world and conclude that their only moral choice is to devote their lives 100 percent to activism. These activists tend to see all activities other than activism as a waste and a distraction. They also often scorn the easier types of activism, choosing instead to plunge themselves directly into the most difficult and dangerous aspects of the struggle.

There are several problems with this viewpoint, beginning with the fact that no one can devote 100 percent of their time to activism or any other activity. We are all human beings with a minimum set of human needs—to be fed, clothed, rested and sheltered—that consumes many hours a day. This may seem like a small point, but these tasks are essential and if you stint on them to devote more time to your activism, you probably won’t function well either as an activist or a human being. Eating junk food, going without sleep, skipping medical appointments and ignoring other personal needs are common ways activists stint on the essentials.

Another problem is that most of us have needs that go well beyond the minimum. We want our bodies to be not just fed and rested, but healthy and fit. We want not just to endure in isolation, but to be part of a sustaining social network. We want our living situation to offer not just safety and protection, but a measure of comfort. And many of us also have important intellectual, creative, cultural, spiritual and other needs.

Many activists try to deny their personal needs so that they can focus more intently on their activism, but in my experience and (especially) that of my students, that strategy never works well. These activists tend to feel progressively more deprived, and progressively less happy, until they eventually burn out.

Please note that I am not arguing in favor of a bourgeois or materialistic life. Nor am I arguing against a lifestyle in which the activist lives humbly and buys as little as possible. As mentioned in the Introduction, I advocate only that people build lives for themselves that derive from, and reflect, their innermost values.

It is a problem when an activist makes choices out of guilt or shame, or to fit in with a certain crowd. It is also a problem when an activist succumbs to behavior that in any other field would be considered workaholism. Workaholism is an addictive behavior in which you work excessive hours largely as a means of avoiding having to deal with stresses or problems in your life, and especially in your personal life. Not everyone who works long hours is a workaholic, but many people who do are.

Workaholics usually have lots of good excuses to justify their long workweeks. A workaholic businessperson might say: “I’m providing for my family,” “No one else can do what I’m doing,” and “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!” And a workaholic activist might use any of those excuses, or some familiar activist-specific ones: “The cause needs me,” or “My sacrifice is nothing compared with that of other activists [or those who are suffering].” Examined closely, however, the workaholic’s excuses rarely make sense, especially given that most workaholics tend to work inefficiently. They get less done during their monumental workweeks than well-adjusted people do when working normal, or even light, schedules. Why should a workaholic work more efficiently when wrapping up at 6:00 p.m. simply means that she has a long, leisurely evening ahead of her during which to contemplate her troubled relationship, growing mountain of credit card debt, incipient alcoholism and other problems? If she stays at the office until 10:00 p.m., even if she’s doing nothing but shooting the breeze with her coworkers, she can probably manage to avoid thinking about these painful topics.

Workaholics also often claim that their need to work excessive hours is only temporary, but despite that claim, the long workweeks never seem to end. That’s because the real reason for the long workweeks is not the stated one, but to help the workaholic avoid dealing with other areas of her life.

How do you know you’re making a healthy decision to work long hours, as opposed to an unhealthy, workaholic one? The following table may help:

What it Really Takes to Change the World

Many activists seek to model their careers after those of famous activists such as Gloria Steinem, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or the nineteenth- and twentieth-century abolitionists, suffragists and labor unionists. There’s nothing wrong with that. The only problem is that, often, we don’t know what those careers really entailed, and are modeling ourselves after a vague romantic ideal.

If you really want to model yourself after your heroes—hopefully without paying the terrible price many of them did—then at least take that goal seriously. Read their biographies, read histories of their movements and study up on their philosophies, strategies and tactics. You’ll see exactly what it takes to accomplish what they accomplished. If you think you have it within you to do the same, then go for it.

Activist and journalist Todd Gitlin, in his terrific book Letters to a Young Activist (see Bibliography), offers one clue as to what it takes:

I knew hundreds of New Leftists, but in the course of a decade I don’t think I encountered more than half a dozen who had the personalities for strong political careers—the patience, self-sacrifice, willingness to calculate what is winnable, toleration of small talk, interest in people, capacity to size up people’s strengths and weaknesses and to make deals. New Leftists were undisciplined, unruly, talky, frequently narcissistic, ambivalent about politics in the first place. For myself, I would rather have written poetry than knocked on doors in poor neighborhoods.

Nowhere in that passage, you’ll note, does he mention subordinating everything else in your life to activism. In fact, many of the qualities he does mention, including patience, toleration of small talk and interest in people, are best cultivated in the context of a well-rounded life. Most of us think of a super-activist as being a super-intelligent, super-visionary, super-passionate and super-hard-working person. Intelligence, vision, passion and hard work are surely important, but they are not enough, and may be not even the most important things.

So, if you want to be a hero, I say go for it—but do it with your eyes open. Understand the nature of the challenge you are taking on, and work with integrity to meet it.

If, after study and reflection, however, you decide that you don’t want to sacrifice your all on the altar of your activism, then, first of all, please accept my congratulations. It takes courage to let go of a romantic ideal.

Next, be optimistic. By shedding the ideal, you leave yourself in a much better position to embrace a realistic vision of activism for yourself. You are going to be much more likely to build a lifelong and productive activist career, and much less likely to burn out, than your starry-eyed and workaholic colleagues.


Reread the Activism Goals List you created in Chapter 8 and make sure that it presents a reasonable set of goals for you to pursue, given your values, needs, situation, talents, resources and willingness to sacrifice.

In particular, see if it reflects an unrealistic romanticized or “heroic” view of activism. If so, rewrite it so that it is more realistic, and the goals you list, attainable.

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