Doing good while feeling good

Taking time to do things that bring me joy, with people who are important to me, is one way that I engage in activism. (Photo by Robin Potter/ Middlebury College)

In my senior year of high school, when my English teacher challenged us to write a letter to a word or concept, I chose to write to activism. Attending a climate protest the weekend before had left me feeling empty and disheartened. Too ashamed to admit that I thought that the protest was a waste of time, I felt like a fraud. “Dear activism,” I wrote, “I know attending this school strike is the right thing to do… but I can hear it, a small, doubtful voice in my head that tells me that my presence in this park has no impact on large scale laws and policies.” At 18, I identified as an environmentalist. I cared about the planet and climate change, and I believed that in the future my profession could have a positive impact on a larger scale. For the time being, however, I was only standing in a park, holding a cardboard cutout of the earth and listening to halfhearted declarations of change.

Like many in my generation, by my senior year of high school I had succumbed to a form of ironic pessimism. Today, not much has changed regarding my world view. Spurred on by social media, my attitude is expressed through sarcastic, insensitive humor. It is a coping mechanism I have adopted to deal with the overwhelming amounts of troubling news I am exposed to every day: coronavirus, school shootings, racism, sexual violence, and global climate change and environmental destruction. The world seems to be ending, I’m still a student, and those who currently hold the power to make change are telling me that it’s my generation’s problem. What else can I do, besides fall into a spiral of anxiety and depression, than laugh?

More recently, though these issues continue to weigh on me, I have been privileged enough to be able to take a step back. I have reassessed my narrow definition of activism to include room for my own wellbeing. I am working to strip myself of the guilt and shame I experience surrounding feeling pressured to do the right thing. Activism through self care, I believe, doesn’t receive enough emphasis. I have come to realize that my own loss of heart stems from a failure to address my basic needs. In her book, Pleasure Activism, Adrienne Maree Brown elaborates on this radical form of self love. “Pleasure activism,” she writes, “is the work we do to reclaim our whole, happy, and satisfiable selves from the impacts, delusions, and limitations of oppression and/or supremacy” (Brown, 2019, p. 13). So often, I feel that my generation is overburdened with responsibility. Instead of being taught to act for ourselves and our future, we are time and again reminded that it is up to us to fix the mistakes of those who came before us. By zooming out, and temporarily relieving myself of this pressure, I am able to gain perspective. I am educated and socially and economically privileged; I intend for my life to have purpose and a positive impact on the planet. But I am also a young adult. I am not yet ready to grow up, and I want to have fun. Fun is ALWAYS relevant. In fact, having fun and making an impact are not mutually exclusive. Neither are having fun and being an activist. As I move through life, in order to stay motivated, I must feel inspired. In order to feel hope, I must be able to feel joy. At times, feeling joy requires that I temporarily dissociate from responsibility, whether it be through humor or intentional ignorance. This does not make me a bad person. Other times, I feel joy by engaging more intentionally with the things and people that I love.

In this light, activism becomes tangible. Holding a meaningful, educated conversation about green energy with my climate skeptic grandfather is activism. So is spending an afternoon learning to mountain bike with friends. In order to catalyze impactful and sustainable change, I must give attention to both the land and myself. Sometimes, this act can be one in the same. By choosing to work at the local organic farm, for example, I am participating in small scale agriculture and supporting a local, female owned business. I am also working outside and with motivated people. In the future, I must continue to think intentionally about my decisions, actions, and goals. Instead of marching around with a cardboard sign or passively listening to the news, I must zoom in. As Kate Orff writes in her essay Mending the Landscape, “It’s time to get our hands in the mud” (Johnson & Wilkinson, 2021, p. 183). The mud, whether it’s a difficult conversation with a family member, or quite literally working in the dirt, with the land, for the earth, is right in front of me. 

Thus, activism is personal. Activism is spreading love in my community. It is caring for myself and for others. In her poem, The Big Picture, Ellen Bass writes, “I try to look at the big picture./The sun, ardent tongue/licking us like a mother…” (Johnson & Wilkinson, 2021, p. 14). Later she continues, “When I get home,/my son has a headache and, though he’s almost grown, asks me to sing him a a song./We lie together on the lumpy couch” (Johnson & Wilkinson, 2021, p. 15). Here, Bass plays with perspective, zooming in and out, connecting the sun to her son, whom she is loving and caring for. There is activism in this gesture. She ends her poem, “There never was/anything else. Only these excruciatingly/insignificant creatures we love” (Johnson & Wilkinson, 2021, p. 15). In the face of overwhelming, unrelenting swarms of information, I find motivation in my community. 

In the end, everything is connected. By taking care of myself, I am taking care of the people I love. I am being an activist. The change I wish to see in the world must first take root in my mind and body. It must be communicated through my actions. Impact is everyone and everywhere.

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Works Cited

Brown, Adrienne Maree. Pleasure Activism; The Politics of Feeling Good. AK Press, 2019.

Johnson, Ayana Elizabeth, and Katharine K. Wilkinson. (Eds). All We Can Save; Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis. One World, 2021.

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