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On “Activism” Burnout, and What I’m Doing to Resist It

In the days and weeks following the Women’s March, I was about as close to “woke” as I’ve ever been. 

I was bearing witness, I was donating, I was reading and tweeting and posting.

And then…I broke down. I started weeping one night right before bed, mumbling incoherent concerns to Daniel. I realized I couldn’t handle it. I had totally overloaded my system, convincing myself that things would only improve if I ran myself ragged.

But I was becoming unable to function with kindness and attentiveness, and that flew in the face of everything I believe about small-scale world change.

So I took a break. I read a book and watched endless episodes of Scrubs.

And I kept writing blog posts. 

I’ve mentioned more than once that justice must extend outward from our individual interests or we’re doing it wrong. I still believe that, but now that I’ve reached a state of mental equilibrium, I realize how important it is to also do the converse of that statement – to keep focusing on the pet cause even when the world is in chaos.

That’s because the ethical practice that’s already become habit is a good reminder of what must happen if we’re to jump into broader world change.

Empathy, science has shown, is unsustainable and wildly inconsistent. 

The visceral pain I felt about immigrants, refugees, women, people of color, children – heck! – everyone affected or soon to be affected by the current administration’s sick political game was borne of good intentions, but it was not what was needed.

What I needed was the clear eyes and full heart I have fostered when it comes to talking about the fashion industry. I’ve spent years developing the skills, knowledge, and point of view to take each new devastating piece of information and place it within the proper context so that I can re-calibrate my current set of moral principles. I can recognize injustice immediately, but I no longer shut down. I keep working.

Longtime organizers and activists know that this is the only way to achieve longterm change.

And on that note, the other reason I can’t abandon my pet cause is because it teaches me about the importance of taking the long view.

The marches, protests, and phone calls are necessary now because so much is at stake now and, frankly, because we have the collective momentum to sustain a movement. But we can’t let short term crises distract us from long term goals.

I heard a story about a Pakistani student at UVa who doesn’t understand the mass hysteria. He recalled going home to drone strikes throughout the Obama administration, too. What we’re seeing in the US is a breakdown of what white Americans believed about ourselves; we are not seeing God unseated and the Devil taking his place. The Devil was always here.

So, yes, what’s happening is pressing, terrible, often nearly unbelievable. But we are fooling ourselves if we think we can ever stop this work. No matter how “good” the president is, there will always be corruption.

We must all become activists, and never stop as long as we live. 

I can’t do that through irrational weeping. I have to extend what I know from this space to other categories of injustice.

So I continue this work not only because I believe my voice matters, and that the brands I promote can make a difference, but because it’s showing me over and over again what sustainable activism looks like.

I’m going to a huddle tonight to talk over next steps at a local level. That sounds like something I can do with a clear head. Slowly but surely, I am becoming who I need to be.


P.S. I recently read an article on the importance of honoring the world’s complexity if we wish to be moral writers. It’s tempting to go for click-bait, to simplify for the sake of clarity or “good vibes” or whatever, but the article insists that we have an obligation to try our hardest to represent reality, even when it’s difficult. I have taken this to heart, and plan on doing my best to allow for (accurate) ambiguity and discussion even when it would be easier to make a sweeping claim. I fear I will always be a melancholy writer, but that’s okay.

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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