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March 17, 2017
Many of the responses of the social-justice community to the actions of Donald Trump, since he took the US presidential office in January, have us caught in a whirlwind that goes like this: Trump does an awful thing, we spring into defense, emotional turmoil ensues, and repeat. It’s our own rinse-wash-repeat cycle.
Of course this is understandable. Things are moving at a fast rate, and we’re all catching our breaths from the new regime. But we cannot manifest social change if we cannot defy the times. Defying the times means not allowing President Trump and his forces to set the terms of the debate for us. It’s not about whether climate change is real; it’s about what’s your solution. It means we should not fall into the trap of letting our opponents solely set the language, location or policies and proposals to be discussed.
It means we build out what George Lakey, the cofounder of Training for Change, calls “offensive campaigns.” And many of us are not there yet. We’re still swirling in a reactive moment, passing on the latest fear-inducing analyses among each other. So how do we develop campaigns that regain the initiative?
We start by defying the times inside of ourselves. We stop behaviors that feed the hype, like using greater and greater levels of urgency as the means to provoke people into action. And we encourage responsible behaviors that fuel long-term movement resistance. Here are seven behaviors that we could incorporate into our organizations and groups to strengthen our movements, so we can keep taking more and more powerful and strategic actions.
One way to think about this is making a value of psychic protection. Exposure to awfulness sometimes creates action; it is also a near-guaranteed recipe for long-term burnout. When we think about getting our news, we ask these questions: Which news sources help us understand the world more fully, and which ones only leave us fearful and despairing? How do we share news with each other that is based on informing, not merely working out our angst?
After getting news, what works for you: moving your body, talking with friends, hopping onto social media? Make it conscious—and if it doesn’t work, don’t keep doing it. Many “news” sources are designed to trigger fears, sell products, create an addiction to that source or reinforce pre-existing beliefs. Our goal is to understand what is happening in our world fully enough to be able to engage with it. Much of the information we need comes not from the news, but from the world around us, i.e., observable natural and human capacities, so it is critical to pay attention to those as well.
The goal is accountability, so that we don’t freeze up in the face of overload or despair. Check in to share and reflect on how you are staying in motion: things like writing letters, volunteering, creating resistance art or preparing direct action campaigns. This may be in formal settings such as meetings or facilitated spaces, or informal spaces such as cafes, over dinner tables, or at the gym. A natural response to conflict is to fight, flee or freeze. In the right context these instincts can lead to survival.
Recognizing when you are frozen is important because the longer you stay stuck the harder it is to move, take care of yourself and be an agent of change. Of course, the goal isn’t just a fight-or-flight survival response, but linking that to our higher brain functions and bigger strategic actions. The support of others helps us do that.
Learn to cultivate love. One starting point may be holding compassionate space for your own pain or the pain of those close to you who are being impacted by the policies and politics of the time. In that reflective space you can give yourself space to be, feel loss, grief, anger, frustration, helplessness and conviction. Then hold your love and extend it beyond, to others you may not know who are also suffering. And lastly, take time to notice that this is not all of your reality: You also need joy in your life. Whether surrounded by beautiful music, love from family or friends, or beauty around you, take delight in creation. Joy in the face of hard times is not a luxury, it is a necessity.
We have to learn to hold the emotions of these times, and continually grow our hearts to be in touch with the suffering of others, both within and beyond our own circle. Without extending our love to others, we are in no spiritual position to defend and struggle with them.
Stories may be from ancestors, contemporaries in this country, or lessons from those around the globe who have faced more severe and repressive governments. The goal is to become a student of history so that you can take inspiration and deepen your understanding of how to struggle and thrive.
To find stories, seek out elders in your community, activists who have been in the trenches, and people who have lived through injustice. See the suggested resources at FindingSteadyGround.com.
To counteract this, we need to stay in touch with our sense of personal power. One goal is to see ourselves as people who create, whether it’s cooking a meal, organizing a dazzling dramatic action, knitting a hat, making a sign or playing the piano. We are more than consumers, and our humanity must be affirmed.
Instead, fill the time with intentional and direct human interaction. Once a week, you could take a full day away from social media as a healthy minimum, but you decide what is right for you.
The research is clear: staying on social media leads to more anxiety, more disconnection, and more mental distress. The exposure to graphic images and reactionary language too often keeps us in our reptilian (fight-or-flight) brain. That’s not to deny the power of social media, but for our own well-being, we must find healthy boundaries.
This is not a complete list, but rather a baseline for maintaining emotional well-being in hard times. These are keystone behaviors that can help generate new patterns and consciousness.
If we do these behaviors, they will start crafting space inside ourselves to get out of reactive mode, fostering habits that keep us centered and build connection. From a strong foundation we can be more creative, dream big and craft strategies that defy the times.
Daniel Hunter is a trainer with 350.org and Training for Change. He is the author of Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow: An Organizing Guide and Strategy and Soul, and grew up in the Baptist Peace Fellowship. He lives in West Philly with his dog, cat, solar panels, and wife. A version of this article also appeared on the Waging Nonviolence website (www.wagingnonviolence.org).