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(en) wsm.ie: Health and Happiness as a Political Organiser - Brief Notes
Fri, 4 May 2018 08:26:54 +0300
This is a quick article about some of the psychology and health issues of being a
political organiser. There is as much to say about this topic time in the universe would
allow, as such, this is a brief sketch which will be part of an ongoing series of articles
dedicated to mental health and psychology with a particular focus on its application to
political organising. ---- Political organising presents additional challenges to our
health. As time goes on, more is said about this. However, it is not enough. As
psychological beings, attending to the psychology of organising is as necessary as
attending to car mechanics in Formula One. It is a movement-level issue rather than a
personal issue for particularly sensitive and damaged people, not just in responsibility
but in the scope of its effects.
I understand these matters can be sensitive, and I reassure the reader that the author is
both a committed political organiser and has much experience with the grimmest regions of
mental illness, so approaches the subject with real understanding. I am not writing this
to preach or criticise, but because I care about you and our movement to better the world.
Why Negativity Matters
There is a lot of negativity associated with leftist political organising for a variety of
reasons. Before discussing those reasons, let us consider why such negativity is
important. There are three basic reasons:
We get personally weighed down, and our lives become less rich. Who wants to feel negative?
We get burned out, and hence are less able to advance our cause. What wants to be incapable?
We produce an atmosphere which many others understandably don't want to be inside. Who
wants to be involved with a bunch of negative people?
Now, how and why does this negativity manifest? Though its effects are damaging, it is
very understandable. Negativity both manifests in the attitudes of individuals, and in
cultural practices within groups.
How Negativity Manifests
Political organising wouldn't be necessary unless there were many serious problems in our
world, problems such as war, poverty, ecological destruction, fascism, and the subjugation
of women. Even reading that short list drags one's mind down a bit.
People who get involved are often cynical from seeing so many bad things happening in the
world. We poke holes in what we see and hear, in the normal narrative. That is good until
we come to identify with always seeing the flaws. There is a widespread belief on the left
that being positive means being naïve or deluded, while being negative means being savvy
and aware. Or, that the worse you feel the more you care. This is actually completely
incorrect, and will be addressed in detail in another article.
Often leftists can get in the habit of complaining for the sake of complaining, either
about people in their circles, other organisations, or in general. It is not uncommon to
sit down with a group of other leftists and engage in a whinge-fest for hours. There is a
difference between measured commentary towards some productive end, and complaining to
vent negative emotions. This can produce quite a toxic environment which I wouldn't blame
anyone for wanting to avoid.
Even if we don't decide we want to be negative, it can be challenging to stay upbeat or
calm when repeatedly engaging with injustice. It takes effort to look straight at misery
and not produce your own misery in response. But the vast majority of us - humans, not
just organisers - have picked up maladaptive ways of thinking and acting. We feel the
weight of the world on our shoulders, a responsibility to make changes which, to us, do
not happen fast enough. We hope for a better world, but are disappointed by the reality
and the slowness of change or even regression. So we give up on hope and instead say or
feel that there is no hope. ‘Every cynic is a disappointed idealist' as George Carlin said.
Why Positivity? (Or, Rationality, Accuracy, and Calm)
The left, being full of proud cynics, tends to think of ‘positivity' as being synonymous
with being a fool. This is not universally the case, but is a major trend worth remarking
upon. Being positive is seen as a ruse of the American corporate self-help industry,
objectively functioning as a device to control people and cover up for the horrors of society.
Indeed there is a lot of garbage ‘positivity' out there, but, let us remember, there is a
lot of garbage ‘anarchism' and ‘socialism' out there too, so let's not throw the baby out
with the bathwater. What I am discussing here is not so much ‘positivity' as being more
rational, accurate, and calm. Why is this important or preferable?
We will live happier lives. Who doesn't want to be content and at peace?
We will attract more people to our cause. Who doesn't want a larger movement?
We will burn out less or not at all. Who doesn't want to be capable and sustainable?
We will have a clearer understanding of the world and clearer plans when we are not
engulfed in negative emotions which cloud our judgment. Who wants to have clouded judgment?
To settle any doubts, this does not mean retreating entirely into our own minds and
ignoring injustices or putting a phony, cloying, happy-clappy gloss on life. We require
neither a miserable smudge nor a happy-clappy gloss.
Helpful Ideas and Techniques
We will now briefly consider some advice from the Stoic philosophers, which was absorbed
into CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) about 2000 years later. I will re-iterate that I
have plenty of personal experience, enough for a lifetime, with the grimmest, nastiest,
regions of mental illness. Accepting and practising this advice is one of the decisive
factors in changing that situation. I say this because some readers will resist the
following passages, and it is important that they know that I am not a naïve, whimsical,
self-help blogger who has skimmed through life and only knows suffering from a textbook.
To begin, let us consider two of the most important facts about our universe.
Firstly, it is not things which make us feel bad, it is our responses to them. Some people
will resonate with this idea. Others will be resistant: ‘don't tell me it is all in my
head!'. The fact is, though, as long as we allow external events to dictate our mental
state, we will be miserable, always chasing something external which will supposedly make
it better. For every event, we make a value judgment, and that value judgment makes us
feel bad (or good). Often we don't notice that we do this. Yes, burning my hand on the
cooker will hurt. But burning my hand will not necessarily make me sorrowful, angry,
disappointed, guilty, jealous, hopeless, ashamed, or afraid. That requires a value
judgment. When we change the way we think about the world, the way we feel changes too.
Has a lasting, genuine, liberatory, global revolution happened yet? No. How you respond to
that fact is your choice. The next time you feel bad, ask yourself what you are really
worrying about, and whether it absolutely has to make you feel bad, or could you think
about it another way.
Secondly, there are some things in our control, some things not. Oh truism of truisms! But
as Chomsky said, the great thing about truisms is that they are true. If we cannot control
something, why bother worrying? And if we can control it, why not change it rather than
worry? It is useful to repeatedly consider this in our daily life. Is it in your control
that millions of people from Syria fleeing war and then facing xenophobia in Europe? No.
Do not worry about that. What is in your control is doing your small part to help them. So
don't worry about that either, just do it. Or perhaps, you have enough to do already. In
that case, none of it is in your control. Don't waste your time on worry.
The next time you find yourself worrying, carefully decide what part of it is actually in
your control and what part of it actually isn't.
These two truths are simple and can be quickly and easily stated and understood. But to
put them into practice takes work. What we might call 'practical wisdom' is a skill which
requires training over relatively long periods of time, and really our entire lives. It
doesn't change the fact that someone is trying to take control of your local campaign
group, or that the government cut funding to domestic violence shelters, or that you have
to work for a boss for 8 hours, or that you've been sleeping for at most 5 hours per night
since you had a baby. What it does is equip you with the tools to make the best of
whatever situation you are in, including preserving your own equanimity.
There is much more to say, but this article is supposed to be quite short. As said, this
article is part of a series exploring such issues. Look out for further articles in the
series, as these issues of mental health and psychology in conjunction with political
organising will be discussed in much greater detail.
Author: Alex Amargi
A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E
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