Burnout is a real thing, for many, many professions. There are a variety of factors that lead to burnout, something a person with a psychology degree and loads of observational experience can tell you. It is highly individual based, as well, stretching from people lacking support from their communities, to institutional oppressions hammering down on one’s ambition and hard work. I hear a lot about organizer burn-out. I have heard that 3-5 years is about the time people start to make tough decisions on how long they want to be in the field. Some people last longer, some people last less, but burnout exists, and it exists for a lot of people.
I used to think that burnout for organizers would come from the work hours. I experienced a period of burnout after working an election while going to school full time. Internships where I experienced the organizer life left me feeling fried by August. I thought I would be crazy to hop back in, vowing never to enter the space again. Until one day, I was sitting at my old job, thinking about leaving the field, going to work as an organizer again, and I thought to myself “worth it”. I am still 9 months in and firmly believe that it is the team we have, the cause we support, and knowing myself and when I need to take a break, that has left me feeling invigorated still. What an early call for a young bird, huh? But, I still can smell the burnt ashes in the air and I am tracing the source to where I, myself, can see the burnout happening.
Today’s political climate is not unlike political climates of the past. History repeats itself over and over and as the law of entropy states, momentum doesn’t change unless energy isn’t put in. It is exhausting, and the availability of media and the newscycle makes it feel like it is following us everywhere. For many people in society, I can imagine this is where they go “now you know what it feels like”. I agree. As one of the more privileged members of society, I am finding more and more that privilege feels a lot like being blissfully unaware of how much issues affect various parts of society. It may feel overwhelming to hear about social justice issues everywhere you look, but imagine being the people brutalized or living in communities where that is your reality. Every. Single. Day.
According to a New York Times article from 2015, in the city of Chicago, if you were to divide the Black Rate/White Rate of car searches, a black individual will be searched 5.2/1.0 over their white counterparts. Even more striking… contraband was found 0.7/1.0 to their white counterparts.
According to a CDC report, calculating the infant mortality rate amongst mothers from 2011-2014, out of 100,000 births, white women accounted for 12.4 deaths due to childbirth complications. Black women accounted for 40.
The newscycle today is exhausting and the exposure seems intense, heated, and attacking. I think about communities where it isn’t just the news that is attacking and I go, “oh, okay, just change the channel”. I get to change the channel, and that is a privilege.
Of course, I can’t gaslight people here, because I am also on the team that, at least once a day, I think about deleting my Facebook and going on a Twitter rant. Deeply meaningful conversations are being broken up into sound bites, where your opinion can go out in the blink of an eye, all the while you haven’t even read the bill you are talking about. It turns into gotcha phrases, hate speech, “othering”, and finding ways to hate people you haven’t even met yet.
The most exhausting thing about being an organizer is sitting across the table, listening to conversations, or hearing from people you trust, that they fundamentally disagree with your view of politics and human rights. Moreover, it can become difficult when you feel like they are ill informed, ill advised, or have shoved their head so far in the sand, they aren’t willing to hear anything you are saying. That is when the tough work begins. That is when you have tough conversations with other people…and with yourself.
I would be a fool to think I have not sat, still sit, or will sit at tables where I sound ignorant. It happens. And, I would be a fool to think that I can go my entire life sitting across the table from people who agree with me. I think that generation by generation (sorry, it isn’t just millennials) the make or break of our society will be our capacity to have deep and meaningful conversations with those we don’t agree with. That is where the money is.
There continues to be a discussion about having a discussion- political discourse almost has created an environment where we are so afraid to talk meaningfully, that the make of a good speech is meaning nothing, saying nothing, and having a snappy sound bite that can fit well in a Tweet. Discourse is a deeply difficult thing. Deep listening, often times, if you are meeting with a diverse group, is painful, will make you defensive, and oftentimes, create an opportunity for you to show your stuff. Are you really in this to be open, or just saying so? This happens on both sides of the aisle, and does not discriminate by political leanings. Everyone, once uncomfortable, often time chooses to push away from the ache and push into self-righteousness, defense mechanisms, and othering.
There is one thing to remember though, as we navigate grace in our discourse and organizing, in our lives and in our work: boundaries are NECESSARY. Boundaries are important. Deep listening can only go so far. If a boundary is crossed that you set prior to the conversation, you are entitled to walk away. There are certain things our society cannot allow. There needs to be boundaries. Grace cannot exist without boundaries.
How does this connect to running, as this is a running blog? And life, because it all intertwines somehow?
Running is a sport where deep conversations are so, so necessary. You have them with your training partners, your coach, the people in your corner, and yourself. I think a lot of runners understand the places your mind goes in a tough race, and the ways you talk yourself through some really tough stuff. It is important, and necessary to grow as a person.
I have found myself closest to burnout with running when A. I refused to have tough conversations with myself (aka your self worth is in running, you need to change) B. I didn’t listen to the voice in my head telling me the truth (you are going to burn out) or C. Operating in what I thought was an honest way, but was really just talking to myself without boundaries (attacking my own character based on how I perform in a race, not how I acted or how I treated people)
When I think about some of the best friends I have, best political discussions I have been a part of, training partners I respected, times I felt most in touch with my values, my marriage, and working environments I thrive in, they are based on a few, critical things: the ability to have tough conversations, without judgement; honesty; integrity; and respect.
Having tough conversations with ourselves and with others is really, really hard. And, it is important to not mistake if for an excuse to be self berating or to let up on boundaries with others. Tough conversations require grace, honesty, and time on feet. It takes time to get good at it, much like running, and forgiveness in the process of it all.
The more I have worked in the organizing space, the more I have recognized the need for tough conversations in my personal life. Being honest in my friendships has never been my strong suit- I cling on to hurt and anger like an old, wet blanket, too afraid to figure out what it feels like to let that thing go and ask for a new one. I am good at confronting people I am comfortable with. Hell, my husband can probably tell you a few stories about how I made it very clear how I felt about his vegetable consumption 😉 But again, time on feet and grace set up with proper boundaries helps me get better at it. It is never perfect, but more and more I find that the best know how to sit at the table, talk, and be open.
Burnout is a real thing- in running, in life, in work, in friendships. Sometimes, you get burned. That is what finding out your potential is all about- getting close to that red line often enough, that your body can respond on race day. It is never perfect, but operating with integrity and doing the best you can is the only way forward.
In life, I find it is going in a similar direction- sitting down, feeling it all, setting boundaries, and deeply listening.