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.
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.