Avoiding Activist Burnout (feature in NOW Magazine)

The cover story for the August 8-14 issue of NOW magazine was titled “How to Fight Activist Burnout”, featuring an essay by artist Syrus Marcus Ware.

Ware has juggled a busy art career with working other jobs, in addition to “working pretty much full-time” as an activist.  Eventually, all this resulted in a season of burnout that “affected everything”: art practice, activism and family life.

Ware cites the support of friends and lovers, accessing care supports and even luck with being able to pull through, acknowledging that many activist-artists don’t make it.

Ongoing awareness of these kinds of difficulties is the main reason I’m amplifying Ware’s message here.  It’s an important message for activist musicians and is especially relevant during periods of “the heightened political divisiveness we are seeing today.”  Moreover, I’ve experienced burnout myself juggling musical pursuits, multiple jobs and personal commitments, without being seriously involved in any activism, let alone to the degree Ware has been.  However, I do want to be more involved and it’s through music I can make that happen.  Yet, I’d very much like to avoid burning out again.

Given the political shite we are continuing to experience these days, community is not only necessary to safeguard against personal burnout, but it’s the key to an activist life.  (Actually, it’s probably the key to life itself, but a more focused point needs to be made at the moment!). Ware has expressed the “need to care for activists before the toll on them becomes too great” – to “celebrate and nourish”, which Ware does through writing “love letters” and drawing portraits – and a call to continually combine artistic practice with activism, “using every form of communication as an agent of change.”

In a quest to find further solutions to avoiding burnout, Ware talked to some “comrades in the struggle” and found these are important: 1) seeking balance among various pursuits (when it’s easy to get caught up in something specific), 2) various forms of self-care, physical and mental 3) awareness of the toll that being in “crisis mode” takes – and our limits for tolerating this.

All of the above might be somewhat intuitive or touted as common knowledge or “common sense” but we would do well to revisit these points, to keep them in mind since we can easily forget about what’s good for us.

For me, the golden combination of community, music and activism is best expressed and experienced through the HONK! movement and related activity.

Apart from the simple joy that comes from participating in HONK!, it is an established system of civic engagement that promotes inclusivity and the breaking of social barriers.  It means I can step away from it if I need a rest and be satisfied that my like-minded friends are going to keep playing music, bringing love and joy to the people and supporting those in need of support.

Being able to rely on others and take a rest once in a while are the key ways to avoid burning out. In so doing, we can help maintain a life balance, take care of ourselves and avoid being in crisis mode for too long.

In the face of continued or renewed struggle, that’s the way forward when it comes to succeeding at the long game.

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