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July/August 2001
Keeping Your Eye on the Prize

By Bruce Friedrich


I have only been active in social justice causes full-time for about 12 years, so it’s a bit humbling to be reflecting on avoiding burnout. Who knows: perhaps next week, I’ll throw up my hands and go to work at the Lexus dealer around the corner. That said, I feel no closer to burnout than I did 12 years ago, so I humor myself with the idea that I’m doing something right.

I have a feeling that others who reflect on this issue will focus on keeping a sense of humor, taking time for yourself, not letting your anger overwhelm you, not letting petty internecine disputes upset you or take you over (my biggest concern about the animal movement—how is it that any of us can find the time to attack other animal rights people or groups?), and so on. All of this strikes me as very good advice. Surely, we all know people whose anger overwhelmed them—anger at others in the movement, at the injustices and apathy in society, or whatever, and whose flame burned out after just a few years. The clearest and saddest example that I know of is peace and homelessness advocate Mitch Snyder, whose words and life have influenced me more than perhaps anyone else. Unfortunately, Mitch’s Jeremiah-like anger at injustice took itself out on both the powers of violence and other activists, often with equal force and little sense of perspective; Mitch’s passion overwhelmed him to such a degree that he took his own life in 1990, and we are all worse-off for his loss. So, I do take this seriously—the need to keep a sense of perspective and not overwhelm oneself with the magnitude of the injustice.

But when I think about the need to avoid burnout, I think about my friends who have been focusing on long-term battles for social justice for much longer than I have, and I think about the traits that seem (to me) to get them through. I think of my friends in the peace movement who have been going strong since the 1960s-Philip Berrigan and Liz McAlister, Jim and Shelly Douglass, Tom Lewis. In the animal movement, I think without question of Ingrid Newkirk, who works harder than anyone I've ever met, in any movement. It's humbling to even reflect on the lives of these people, all of whom could be much more successful, from a worldly perspective, but who have put money, self, ego, and so on, aside to focus their lives on making the world a better place.

What is it that characterizes the lives of these amazing people? I may have it entirely wrong, of course, but what I see as the central theme based on my time with each of them, is that these remarkable people “keep their eyes on the prize” (to quote that civil rights anthem). It is difficult to spend even five minutes with any of them without recognizing that they have a steadfast focus on the long-term struggle. What seems to characterize those who have kept at it for many years is a sense of purpose, an understanding that whatever minor pitfalls may befall us on the way, the suffering of those victimized by imperialism and the animals victimized by the industries of exploitation makes any sorrows we experience seem minor by comparison. I suppose it’s almost tautological to say that those who leave the movement have taken their eyes off the prize. But perhaps it’s also accurate to suggest that perhaps they were never really focused on the long-term struggle to begin with.

About a year ago, a very dear friend of mine—Art—lost his brother to a cruel attack behind the soup kitchen in Hartford, Connecticut where he worked as a volunteer. Art has been active in peace and justice work, living in voluntary poverty, running soup kitchens and shelters and going to jail for nonviolent civil disobedience, since the mid-1970s. I still see him, carrying the torch of nonviolence, whenever I attend any peace and justice events. If anyone has an excuse to drop out of activism, get a “real” job, and return to the world of acquisition and self-absorption, it’s Art. Yet he continues. He remembers that there is a battle for justice going on, and that every person is crucial in the struggle.

I am reading Peter Singer’s Writings on an Ethical Life (HarperCollins 2000) right now. In his essay, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Singer argues that what we do not absolutely need belongs to the less fortunate: “People do not feel in any way ashamed or guilty about spending money on new clothes or a new car instead of giving it to famine relief. (Indeed, the alternative does not occur to them.) This way of looking at the matter cannot be justified…We ought to give the money away, and it is wrong not to do so.” Those schooled in the social justice tenets of Judaism and Christianity will recognize this argument as an extrapolation of the dictum to “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you;” and Jesus’ directive to: “Go, sell all that you have, and give to the poor.” St. Thomas Aquinas, quoted by Singer, puts it this way: “The bread which you [do not eat] belongs to the hungry; the clothing [in your closet], to the naked; and the money you [put in the bank] is the redemption and freedom of the penniless.”

To put this in terms of animals, if you were an animal in a slaughterhouse, or in a leghold trap, or a circus, would you understand someone who spends money on unnecessary things, rather than giving to an animal group; or the person who goes to the movies or watches television, rather than passing out leaflets or writing letters to alleviate your plight?

The people I have met who have been most successful in not burning out are the people who have kept their focus securely on the suffering of those for whom they’re fighting, and who have not wallowed in self-pity, no matter how much opportunity was given them. Do they have a sense of humor? Yes, absolutely. Do they understand the value and importance of celebrations, parties, and “pick-me-ups”? Again, yes. Do they occasionally take time to rejuvenate? Well, somewhat, yes, though the suffering and lack of “time off” granted the animals, the starving, and so on, are never far from their consciousness.

When something upsets me—a nasty email from another activist about some perceived slight, a personal problem that has me losing sleep, some new injustice, to animals or people, that seems to defy comprehension—I try to see this through the eyes of the victims and to remember the words of labor organizer Joe Hill who said, “Don’t mourn! Organize!”

In conclusion, I don’t want to appear the killjoy. People who know me know that I enjoy parties, enjoy jokes, have a life (well, sort of) outside of activism, and am a kind person who can empathize with people who see the world through a different lens than the one I use. I’m not clueless about human nature: I know that nurture, relationships, escape (in the form of movies, dinner out, new shoes), etc., are required to keep us from going crazy or “burning out;” throwing up our hands and saying, “It’s just too hard.” But I think that as many people leave movements because they aren’t passionate enough as leave because they’re too passionate. I think as many people leave from boredom as from burnout. And I think that a clear vision of the blessedness of our own situation necessitates that we fight even harder, right to the point of burnout, but without burning out.

To paraphrase Mitch Snyder, “The animals, the starving, the oppressed—they never get a break, a vacation, or time alone.” So we shouldn’t work ourselves so hard that we become bitter and disenchanted; we should take time to ourselves (recognizing that this is time away from advocacy); we shouldn’t waste any of our time attacking other people who are doing something to make the world a better place (since most people aren’t); and we should try to seem as “normal” as possible, so as to not alienate people whose actions we are trying to change, but in our heart of hearts, what I think is most likely to see us through is a focus on the level of suffering—the level of evil—that we’re fighting against. We need to keep our eyes on the prize—human, animal, and earth liberation.

Bruce Friedrich is Vegan Campaign Coordinator for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.


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