Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Radical Self-Care

A friend of mine has stopped reading or watching the news. Another friend tells me that he can no longer listen to Democracy Now. He gets too upset. I know the feeling. If I spend too much time surfing political blogs and news sites, eventually I feel it coming over me: a sickening feeling of rage, fear, and powerlessness. What’s a progressive to do?

There’s no doubt about it. These are difficult times. The political situation has never been worse in my lifetime. In peace movement terms, for instance, the establishment has done its best to make itself immune to protests and demonstrations. The media generally ignores them. And so do the politicians. Even though the polls indicate that the people are against the war, the corporate political structure blithely disregards public opinion, and the war continues. You can hardly blame the average peace activist for getting discouraged once in awhile.

More ominously, the government line has become increasingly extreme under the torturer Bush and his associates. A lot of things that used to be beyond the pale are now in the process of being accepted as standard by the state—a steady creep towards a 21st century version of fascism has in fact become more and more evident.

To notice that the country, and the world, is becoming more dangerous is not to confine ourselves to matters of physical or civil security. We can worry about being spied on, censored, jailed, tortured, or blown up—not that worrying will do us any good. I would argue, however, that dangers can also arise from within ourselves, dangers that are preventable. They are depression, paralyzing fear, obsessive anger and rage, fatalism, resignation, cynicism, and unhappiness.

I’ve often thought about this, and in my calmer moments I have arrived at a little bit of wisdom that I hope you will find helpful.

First and foremost, I believe that it’s important to steadily focus attention on your values. Think about what they are, for one thing. If you’re against certain ideas and policies, ask yourself why. Being against something implies that we are for something different. Why, for instance, do I oppose all torture? It’s because I believe in love, compassion, gentleness, and respect. To abuse a helpless person, no matter who it is, violates these core values. I am comfortable with this basic sense of humanity, this sense of decency. I can spot cruelty when I see it, either in action or in attitude, because I have experienced the opposite of cruelty in myself and in the actions of people I love and respect. I also know that a potential for cruelty exists in me, and I consider it important for my own well-being not to indulge that aspect.

This is not just about beliefs or ideas, but about how I experience being human, and what that means to me. I think true spirituality is our way of accessing this deeper sense of being, but even those progressives who are allergic to any mention of spirituality will surely concede that they have some inward sense of truth—otherwise they wouldn’t care about justice. We need to be conscious of this inward sense, be comfortable with it, and ultimately be sustained by it.

In the 60s and 70s we used to quote Che Guevara; who said “the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.” Regardless of what you may think about Che Guevara (for the record, I am deeply skeptical when it comes to Marxism), there’s something in this quote that is very important. Anger is such a potent force that we are easily sidetracked by it, and we become absorbed by what I call “enemy mind.” It all becomes about hating the enemy. Eventually you forget about why you were outraged in the first place, and you get eaten up by this anger and hatred, and it makes you politically impotent. You’ve lost your guide, which is love. Quite simply, being radical or progressive is about loving people and wanting happiness and well-being for them.

I’m not talking about loving your enemy. That can be a powerful spiritual experience, but it’s not granted to most of us to be Jesus or Gandhi, and therefore it’s not politically practical. Besides, a certain degree of outrage and anger is appropriate in order to spark change. If I’m not indignant when I see a fellow human starved or beaten or neglected by the powerful and greedy, then there’s something lacking in me.

No, I mean love of humanity in general, and for specific suffering people in particular. That’s the motivator and the guide. And it’s a source of strength. When you allow yourself to be conscious of that within yourself, your action isn’t frustrated or guilty. It’s genuine and real.

Another aspect of staying focused on your values is to see through the dominant double-talk and not be either confused or dismayed by it. This can be hard, because the Orwellian language now prevalent in the public discourse is a violation of our sense and reason. To see through it, you must ask yourself what words like “freedom,” or “democracy” or “peace” really mean to you. The clearer you are about this, the easier it is to spot when the words are used to mean their opposites. Immediately questioning this use is a good tool—Socrates knew a thing or two about change, and calmly questioning assumptions often accomplishes much more than directly attacking. Regardless of what effect it may have out there, the important thing is that you stay centered. That old saying about sticks and stones may seem hackneyed, but there’s some wisdom there. If someone uses words to try to wound me, it only works if I allow it to. My advantage is that I know words are just tools—I don’t have to be caught up in what other people make of them.

Another important thing, and here I’m taking a page from the anarchists, is to enjoy yourself in the moment. If all you’re doing is working towards a future goal—peace, a just society, whatever—and you’re miserable until you get there, that’s really just a mirror image of the corporate rat race, isn’t it? Always striving for some fulfillment that isn’t here yet, never feeling okay right now—that’s no way to live. The forces arrayed against us are huge—greed and the power principle aren’t going down without a protracted struggle—so it’s all too easy to get burnt out and despondent, wishing for a victory that seems forever elusive. I think working for change is much more effective when the people doing it are having fun, being happy as far as that may be possible on a given day, and therefore having more energy, which spreads more readily to others.

So in practical terms: make love, enjoy friends and food, exercise and play, laugh and express joy. In fact, express the full range of feelings, which includes the so-called negative ones like sadness and grief, because this is part of the intensity of living. If you have issues, work on them. The idea that there’s a contradiction between personal change and social change is bullshit. Just avoid extremes on one side or the other. If all you do is “work on yourself” and ignore what’s going on in the world, you can end up a shallow narcissist. If all you do is political action, you can end up a psychological mess, not dealing with your own shit and therefore inflicting it on others.

If you find yourself getting too wound up about the news, take a break. I listen to Democracy Now, but not every day. I don’t need to read every blog to figure out that Bush is a creep. Sometimes I need to take a walk instead.

Anyone who has read my articles knows that I love sarcasm, satire, and savage indignation. There’s nothing wrong with this in principle, but from time to time I have to step back and look at the big picture, recognize the principles involved, and appreciate the stakes. The real problems are systemic—the names may change, but the forces remain the same.

Of all the internal threats we face, I think fear is the most dangerous. It’s obvious that the self-appointed rulers want us to be in a state of fear—the war of terror is being waged against us, after all. Look down with humor on the fear-mongers. See them for the weak little creatures they are. Courage isn’t some mystical macho attitude. It means feeling secure enough in myself to stand up and say what I need to say, do what I need to do. What’s the worst that can happen? It would probably happen anyway if I did nothing. I choose self-respect rather than trying to hide and not be noticed. Fuck it. I’d rather stand with Gandhi and Malcolm and MLK, even though all those guys got shot, then to be a miserable pathetic coward like Dick Cheney. Do you think he’s happy? Only the way a pig is happy at the trough.

Sometimes there’s a lot of complaining. How come change isn’t happening? Why aren’t more people protesting? Well, complaining doesn’t help. Just do what you can do. My talent is writing, so that’s what I do. Everything counts. If you despair and think that what you do doesn’t count, well, how is that different from just sitting on the couch watching Fox News?

If you find all this overbearing or preachy, okay. Argue with me. I would like nothing better. Because I don’t care about being right or wrong. That’s a fool’s game anyway. My real wish is that you would come up with a lot better things than I’ve thought of , and put them into practice too. I would love to hear about it.

All I’m saying is, take care of yourself. We need you fresh. Remember that love is the guide. And happiness is a revolutionary act.


Mauigirl said...

Great post and I agree. You can only do what you can do, and use the talents you have to try to make the change you want to see. And working in your own little area to make change is the way to do it. It's really kind of existential - you cultivate your own garden, make whatever changes you can effect.

DED said...

Excellent post. There's a lot of wisdom here.