Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Looking After Yourself as Radical Political Activism

In the last year or so, the world has turned out to be a much better place than I thought it was. This despite the fact that the political situation in the UK has begun to deteriorate sharply. In fact, just a year later and I would have been in a far worse position and may have struggled to escape my violent marriage – not merely in terms of financial insecurity, but in terms of whether I would have had the practical and legal help I needed. This frightens me.

With their decimation of the welfare state and public services, this government is implicitly repeating the messages of my abusive ex and everyone else who seeks to abuse and oppress others. My health doesn't really matter, my happiness doesn't really matter. My relationships with friends and family don't really matter. My dreams don't really matter.

And obviously, I have to do something about that. Two things. One thing speaks for itself. The other is rarely spoken about but is actually more important. It is the cornerstone of every struggle for equality and social justice. It is a necessary condition for making a difference.

Looking after yourself is radical political activism.

It's radical because this is a message you are unlikely to receive anywhere in the media or from culture. You may receive messages advocating material self-interest. You may receive messages advocating a healthy lifestyle, but very often these messages come with a dose of shame and angst for your inevitable failure to follow all available advice. If you watch television, read the news or step outside in a built-up area today, you will receive lots and lots of messages. None of them will tell you that you matter and you need to look after yourself. Many of them will suggest reasons why you don't really matter.

The only people likely to give you this message are your friends and family. They might not - they might not think it even needs saying. But even if they do, you may be inclined to think that they are over-invested, that they think you matter more than you actually do. But they don't. They're right. You matter at least as much as that.

Looking after yourself is an act of modesty.

No need to get big-headed about this business of mattering. Projects and movements are often bigger than the individuals within them, but the point about this is not that it doesn't matter if you get flattened – it means that if you step back, it carries on without you. If something matters, there are always other people around to step up and help out. Often there are other people around who won't step up until you step back. You have to be very careful if you ever get to think that you're the only person who can fulfil a certain mission. Sometimes, I suppose, somebody might be. I've certainly never have been, so I wouldn't know.

Looking after yourself is a necessary condition for looking after others.

Over the years, I have often pushed myself to achieve something – battled through an afternoon at the cost of a week or three in bed – and this has sometimes been worth it. But times I have run myself into the ground, got myself into terrific debt with the Spoon Gods, costing me a long-term deterioration in my health? It has never been worth it. Not only because I suffer too much, although that matters. But also because then I render myself less useful, and for periods of time, pretty much useless. If I wreck my already damaged health, I am certainly no use as an activist, but I'm also less useful as a friend to people who need me.

Looking after yourself is setting a good example to others.

Looking after yourself gives permission to those around you to do likewise. Self-sacrifice is not a personal virtue that one can claim for oneself without harming others. If you don't rest, it makes it jolly hard for people around you to rest – and they may need it even more than you do.

Looking after yourself is an act of feminism, disability equality, queer pride etc..

As women, we're supposed to put most of our energy into looking after others and what is left into keeping ourselves attractive. As men, we're supposed to be putting individual success before everything. As disabled people, we're supposed to be constantly triumphing over adversity and as such, we're supposed to keep pushing, no matter what, to avoid being overcome by the tragedy of our existence. As queer people, we're supposed to be proving that we have wonderful perfect lives and relationships and nothing than needs working out or working on. I'm too white to talk about the demands placed on other ethnic identities which make it harder to look after oneself but I know they exist.

And yet...

Looking after yourself keeps identity politics in its place.

The goal of egalitarianism is a world where there are far fewer contexts in which we'd be forced think about our gender, sexuality, disability, the colour of our skin and so forth. In a world where this stuff comes up as often as it does, we need to spend as much time as possible just being people. I don't mean we should ever avoid the subject (it won't avoid us), but that we should spend time with ourselves and with people who would use words to describe us that have nothing to do with social and political constructs.

Looking after yourself is an act of courage.

Two of the most frightening social interactions are saying “No” and asking for help, despite the fact that other people usually respond very well to both. It's not all that courageous to carry on regardless and fall into a hole – in fact, self-neglect is often the path of least resistance, involving a downward trajectory and all.

Looking after yourself defies your enemies.

Very few people or organisations are actually invested in our suffering, but there are certainly those – including our current government – who are invested in our powerlessness. Political injustice is so often a matter of attrition rather than victimisation; things are made to be difficult not so our lives fall apart (that's collateral damage), but things are made difficult so that we give up. And it is entirely understandable when people do.

It is radical political activism that we take steps to keep ourselves in a position where we can cope with our own battles, have as good lives as we possibly can and hopefully have some energy left over for contributing to the bigger picture. We need to work on living the lives we want, even when we're still fighting for the right to live them.


Vic said...

This is among the many of your excellent, important posts. May I link etc to it? - full credit, naturally.

Anonymous said...

What you say is very true and very important. It relates to one of the issues close to my heart, autonomy.

Society's obsession with 'couledom' makes it very difficult, especially for women, to be autonomous.

However, I must take issue with you on one point. It is not my experience that people respond positively to requests for help. Sadly, I've found that a mighty effort to make a request for help often does not elicit any help and just leaves one with the additional problem of having exposed oneself as less than capable.

Never That Easy said...

(If that last post went through, please ignore this one. If it didn't Blogger ate my comment.)

Goldfish, you are (as usual) giving me a lot of new ways to look at things.

The Goldfish said...

Thank you three,

Vic - of course you may. :-)

Janet - I'm sorry that's your experience. I guess this must vary a great deal between contexts and to be honest, my experience is limited to only a few such contexts - among disability activists, I've found people are generally very good about that, but then many if not most disabled people know something about unseen limitations.

I only hope your experience of this improves in the future.

NTE - thank you. :-)

Anonymous said...

Further to what janet says, I love encouragement to take care of myself, and this post is excellent.

However, we have to bear in mind that, as important as self-care indeed is, most of us also need the care of others.

After all, it's a capitalist tenet that we can satisfy all our needs ourselves (using a bevy of consumer products) and that social support networks aren't important; everybody is an island, in other words.

Sometimes it's used as a sort of jujitsu move: if you are having problems, it must be your fault for not doing adequate self-care! And the self-care starts being just another thing you have to find time and energy for.

Never mind that access to sources of care continues to be eroded, that we are having to work longer hours to put food on the table, and that people's opportunities to access self-care are already different owing to privilege and oppression and usually in inverse proportion to what they need the self-care for in the first place.

In the meantime, mutual care gets regarded as nice and fluffy but weak and dispensable, and certainly nowhere near as radical and cool as storming the (real or metaphorical) barricades. (There's a gendered aspect to this stereotype as well.) Hell, we probably spend way more time and energy tearing one another to shreds than caring for one another. And the work we do is stressful, and sometimes really traumatic.

So recognizing the need for self-care is really good and essential, but we also have to recognize and build a far bigger place in communities of activism for mutual care; work out what that means and what it looks like; and set great value to it, much like you advocate for self-care.

Anonymous said...

I think this is a great article.

In regards to what femmeguy said, I don't think this article in anyway detracts from the idea of caring for others as well, but it is also quite a lot of work to create communities of mutual care and if we can't even look after ourselves how are we going to look after others, so I see this as just like a first step, look after yourself first, thats the idea. But I suppose as individuals who sometimes may go through vulnerability and weakness, we cannot always rely on the care of others and sometimes we do a lot to damage ourselves further when we are going through times of weakness, we don't step back, we burn the candle both ends, we put ourselves continually in harms way even when we are sick, and then that causes more harm to our friends and communities too in the end. So I think its a good start to think about yourself.