That question should be at the heart of your quest to build a sustainable activist career—actually, it should be at the heart of your quest to build a happy and productive life. It is a question that every human being should give deep thought to throughout her or his life.
Socrates famously said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” (Actually, it was Plato, quoting his teacher, Socrates.) Gloria Steinem, in Revolution From Within (see Bibliography), talks about a long period in her life during which she consciously resisted such self-examination:
I continued in this way for decades while pressures grew. . . I organized and traveled and lectured; I campaigned and raised contributions and solicited ads to keep [Ms. Magazine] going; I turned my apartment into a closet where I changed clothes and dumped papers into cardboard boxes; and I only once in twenty years spent an entire week without getting on a plane. But at home or away, I often awoke with sweaty palms and a pounding heart, worried that I was going to mess up some public event, fail to find enough money to pay the printer and meet the payroll, or otherwise let down this movement. . .
She further recalls, “When my friends asked about my state of mind or emotions, I made them laugh—and despair—by turning Plato on his head. ‘The examined life,’ I explained, ‘is not worth living.’” Despite her jokes, however, she reports having felt “burnt out many times” during this long period, and “like a soldier who is wounded but won’t lie down for fear of dying.”
I’m of two minds about Steinem’s story. On the one hand, there’s no question that she paid a terrible personal price for her activism: decades of anxiety and self-denial. On the other hand, there’s also no question that she was spectacularly effective. Along with her feminist colleagues, she transformed our culture and politics in ways that have improved life for hundreds of millions of women and men in North America and around the world. It’s sometimes hard to remember how difficult things were for women before the second wave of feminism ushered in by Steinem and her colleagues, but here’s a sampling: employers routinely discriminated against women both in hiring and in pay; women were often fired from jobs simply for marrying or becoming pregnant; many schools provided little or nothing in the way of athletics programs for girls; many banks wouldn’t lend money to unmarried women or to married women without their husband’s approval; and behavior that we now consider sexual harassment or even rape was considered socially acceptable.
Steinem and her colleagues were largely responsible for changing all of that, but many of them, including Steinem herself, paid a heavy personal price for devoting their lives to activism. Was it worth it? Steinem doesn’t address this question directly in her book, but I suspect her answer would be “Yes.” (And as a direct beneficiary of this liberation, I can only say “thank you.”)
What if, however, Steinem had achieved less than she had? What if, like most activists, she had achieved much less? Because, let’s face it: Steinem was a superstar. Through some combination of talent and luck, she was able to achieve vastly more than most activists, even activists who make a comparable or greater personal sacrifice. Most activists have to content themselves with creating a relatively small amount of social change, although those changes add up, of course, and also provide the context in which the occasional big change can happen. And some so-called “small changes” can make a huge difference in the life of an afflicted or oppressed individual and, hence, are not really small at all.
It’s not just true for activism, it’s also true for sports, business, art and any other human endeavor: most people are not superstars, most change happens in small increments, and those increments are often achieved only after substantial personal sacrifice.
So, imagine that you are an “ordinary” activist. You’ve worked for years or decades on an important cause, enduring poverty, isolation, disapproval from family and community, and the depression and (sometimes) trauma that comes from being a constant witness to society’s evils. In other words, you’ve made the usual sacrifices that activists make and endured the usual things they endure. But you haven’t achieved a vast amount of liberation, or even a little liberation. Maybe you’ve just held the line against one small evil. Or maybe, despite your best efforts, the line moved backwards.
Were your years or decades of sacrifice worth it?
Objectively, it is clear from history that even small changes are meaningful. In Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), Adam Hochschild describes how a tiny group of “superstar” abolitionists, including Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, John Newton and former slave Olaudah Equiano, was responsible for the historic evil of slavery being banned not just in England but indirectly around the world, and in little more than a hundred years. But that group, he repeatedly emphasizes, was supported by the work of thousands of other activists who were doing pretty much what activists continue to do to this day: holding demonstrations, giving speeches, writing letters, doing legislative work, speaking through the press, providing financial support, selling socially-conscious products (for instance, the famed “Am I not a man and a brother?”–inscribed Wedgewood medallion), and risking life and liberty taking direct action to help individual slaves. The vast majority of these activists are unknown to history, and yet, working alongside the superstars, they halted one of history’s most monumental evils.
On a non-objective, more personal level, the answer to the question of whether your sacrifice was worth it depends on the answer to this one: Who are you?
This section of The Lifelong Activist is devoted to helping you answer that question.