I float between two modes. They seem conflicting but of course they needn’t be, I’ve just not quite learned to integrate them yet. On the one hand I am somebody who cares deeply. I can get sucked into the news and into important social topics like climate change, like education, like democracy, like freedom of information, like privacy, like workers rights… When I start reading, thinking, discussing these topics I feel a fire burn inside me. Like I want to really go there. Go to battle. Like I want to put every ounce of influence that I can have into somehow bettering these causes or at least slightly bettering some of these causes. I feel called. I want to write. To think. To devise alternatives. To take things back to first principles and built back up from there. To invite others to come play with me. It starts off with some reading. Then some writing. Then some sharing. Then some discussing. And before you know it, my sleep is a bit worse, I’m less present at home with my family, I spend more time on screens and drink more coffee. I start feeling a sense of frustration that I’m not having an impact or helping when I could. I feel angry at myself. Or at the world.
As I’ve developed I’ve noticed this pattern earlier and earlier and so I now can more or less curtail this process at its roots. Instead I choose to really limit the degree to which the news enters my life, I almost totally ignore social media. I slow down on the tech. I slow down on the reading and on the writing. I choose to not put my thoughts out there. Instead I choose to walk in nature, to spend time with my family, to surf, to meditate, to focus on taking care of myself and those immediately around me. This sometimes makes me feel a bit flat because I’m no longer putting creative energy into important topics. But it also makes me feel balanced mentally. It makes me feel healthy. And the purpose that comes from focussing on my immediate circle gives me a more sustained kind of energy. This approach is probably less impactful but I’m definitely happier for adopting it more and more.
The first thought cycle is one where I care. The second is one where I take care. The first is outward. The second is slightly more inward. The first feels like an intense attraction. The second like a balanced contentment. My assumption is that many activists live in the first cycle. Called to a cause they feel is their contribution in their life time. To spend time on something else is to waste time. It is perhaps selfish even. But I assume it must come with plenty of burn out, ups and downs and perhaps at its worst an unexamined life led by an external cause that controls us. The second cycle is one of caring for ones self so that we can care for others. It must cause far less harm to us and to those around us, but potentially at the detriment of improving the lives of many others. The first must be short lived but intense. The second a long term slow burn.
Which to choose? Of course it’s not a case of either / or. I think we are in the age of both. I can choose to care and take care. But how I manage that ying-yang dance I’m not yet sure. How do I let the fire burn somewhere deep inside of me without letting myself get set on fire? How might I be intensely creative whilst remaining equanimous? How might I look out to the wider world and all of its issues whilst remaining mindful of my inner circle and how we live well?
The balancing act between caring and taking care (of ourselves and those closest to us) feels like a life long lesson in creativity, in social conscience and in a life well lived. If we spend our days in our little worlds we run the risk of having an absent contribution, but if we jump in without self-care we might well burn out and our contribution will be short lived. Perhaps the answer lies in a long term view of contribution, over a life time let’s say, but that might ignore that some issues are extremely pressing. On the other hand, our biases no doubt take over. We choose to metaphorically save the life in front of us, rather than contributing to saving many more lives in a distant land or time. And no doubt we need both types. Those who live mostly in the first cycle and those who live mostly in the second.
I however, am aiming somehow for the third. Not for the ‘either / or’ but for the ‘both’. How? I’m not yet sure. I would say I’m never 100% one and 0% the other but perhaps am 66% one and 33% switching when I need rebalancing. I would like to learn to shoot fewer, more effective bullets. To do a lot with the little time I spend and protect myself in the remainder of my schedule. For my form of activism to not be outside the system, but connected to the system from somewhere healthier, somewhere more whole. To get sucked in would be to lose the vital perspective needed to have an impact. So learning this dance becomes important, self-care becomes a tool for caring. Looking after oneself becomes a vital part of looking after others. On flights they tell us we should put our own oxygen masks on before helping our neighbour. I’m sure this applies too.
The question is: How can I learn to both ‘care’ and ’take care’?
I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’m still working through mine. I just know it’s not one or the other but both. How do you manage?
Care and Take care.