Burned Out

burned outI never thought I would lose my idealism this early in life. I'm armed with a cup of (free-trade) coffee ready to start writing an article entitled, "The Changing Face of Activism," a hip and upbeat discussion on how activists are passing up sit-ins and demonstrations for technology and diplomacy. My intention is to get the message across that the " troublesome protestor" is a thing of the past, and the new face of activism can be a soccer mom or the kid next door.

I have been writing for the last three hours, but have made less progress than the Nixon Administration. My attempt to write something raw and revolutionary is instead sounding like something that would appear in Teen Beat magazine: "Put away your peace patch and get out your cell phone! It's time to take a stand! This is not your grandfather's activism!" I am not proud of my candy-coated version of the suburban activist, but I am ashamed to admit how I really feel about my work: exhausted, frustrated, and hopeless.

For five years I have worked as an organizer for a non-profit organization. I am responsible for organizing demonstrations, conferences and trainings throughout the United States. There was a time when my passion for coordinating these events knew no bounds. I was so invigorated with my work I convinced myself and those around me that the suffering people around the world would not survive without my help.

My delusions came crashing down when I began aiding in the decision making process of the organization. Instead of being active myself, I was telling other activists what to do. This position taught me about the ruthlessness of a non-profit organization. I was being asked my opinion, but no one was really listening. My work became an endless highway of projects that failed miserably or refused to get off the ground. Since I became so overwhelmed with the projects being handed to me, things just haven't been the same. I do my work, but find myself more enthusiastic about going grocery shopping than to a demonstration in front of the embassy.

I don't feel compelled to "start a revolution" and I certainly don't feel the need to "change the world." It's not that I can't write a decent article about the activist movement, it is that I don't want to lie. I'm tired of being a worker bee for a hierarchy I will never understand. And sadly, to the disappointment of my parents and shock of my co-workers, I find myself ready admit that I am a victim of activist burn out.

I will admit that I feel as apathetic as those people who walk by my information table without a second glance. This is the first time I can admit that I just don't give a damn. My attitude makes me want to cry and cringe at the same time. Words like "activist synergy," "strategic planning," and "membership mobilization" make me want to vomit. I used to be the poster child for activism, but now I'm terrified of what I have become… first I lose my idealism… before I know it I'll be driving a BMW and watching “The O Reilly Factor.”

I'm not the only one who suffers from activist burn out. Everyone suffers from it at least once. Unfortunately in my case, it feels like it’s for good. There has been a time in everyone's activist career where they have questioned themselves and the merits of their work. It's hard to put out so much, and not get any results in return. I knew I was on the brink of realizing this when I started lying to myself.

It was like being a drug addict… I would keep working because I wanted to achieve the activist high, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn't find it. So I would lie to myself and the people around me by saying things like, "If we get one person to change their mind, it makes a difference" and " It doesn't matter whether they hear us or not, the important thing is we're out there." Inside however, I was asking myself, "How long can one scream when no one else is willing to listen?"

Activist burn out is result of the growing agendas of non-profit organizations. There are so many things to accomplish and oversee, activists have no direction on how to maintain the quality of their work while maintaining the quantity. There are so many tasks to be done that leadership often becomes haphazard and energy in the group becomes depleted.

Another reason the activist spirit is extinguished is because people grow up. I admit that in the last few years I have traded in the Birkenstocks for pumps. I notice that as I age my tastes have been growing more expensive and further away from the "grassroots mentality." Let's not kid ourselves -- when there are taxes to be paid, cars to be bought and college tuition to be repaid, saving the world just isn't a priority. Just look at your parents, you'll understand. After work we are all too busy and too tired to address some international organization's far-reaching agenda.

My burn out is a result of my own misguided ideals. I thought I would be an activist for the rest of my life, but now I'm questioning that notion. It is time to admit that maybe my priorities have changed. I am feeling lost in a world where my identity as an activist has disappeared, but I am glad I am no longer in denial.

Currently, I am in an activist paradox. There are times when I never want to chant at another demonstration, or participate in another phone conference again. There are other times when I would give anything to feel the sheer joy that occurs when I learn that my work has helped change at least one person's life.

Despite my internal battles, I know I must remain in the non-profit world, and attempt to find my niche again. The industry that may have destroyed me could hold the key to my resurrection. I don't deny that there are days I want to give up so much, that I want to run away from this crazy overzealous world of idealism and never look back. But after years of being an activist, I know I can't.

Although I may harbor resentment and suffer from days of exhaustion, I am trying my absolute best to stay strong. I plan on getting through this tough time by engaging in activism in moderation and possibly pursuing independent activist projects that make me feel fulfilled again. I want young activists to know that though their cause may be a great one, they need to be careful they don't make the same mistakes I did by letting their work consume them. No one should have to suffer the serious burn-out that I do. If it does happen, I want fellow activists to know that even in their darkest hour, there is still hope. I encourage anyone suffering activist burn out to look deep within themselves, and find the fire that made them an activist in the first place.

Activism is beautiful and enriching when done in moderation, but my error was letting it consume my life. It is imperative that young activists are well balanced, and take time for things other than being active -- like being a kid. My advice is to open your eyes to the realities of the movement or organization you may be working for, and make sure to understand what you're getting into before you get in over your head. If you feel overwhelmed at all, take a break…as long as you follow this advice, you will have no regrets. No matter where this crazy world of activism takes you, keep the gleam in your eye, the spirit of progress in your mind, and no matter what, never let anyone extinguish the passionate fire in your heart.

Natalie Jesionka is a journalist and long time activist in the New York Metro area.
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