Thriving as an activist

February is Activist Appreciation Month and so we are reprinting this article by Michelle Gravolin, originally published in Australian Vegans Journal issue 1, pages 53-54.


Flourishing or floundering - where are you at?

Are you thriving? Or is it a struggle? Does hope come and go? Does your energy for activism fluctuate? Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed? Do you wish you were doing more?

Most people feel a mixture of these things in life, and probably even more so in activism. Some days I have an abundance of drive, energy, enthusiasm, compassion, dedication and patience, and other days I have to dig deep to find these parts of myself.

While activism is in many ways a joy, it is also by definition a struggle. We seek to disrupt norms, question significant traditions, and challenge powerful financial interests. Although there is increasing recognition of the positive contribution of veganism, there are still many detractors, people who dismiss our concerns, and legal animal abuse continues to be the norm. No wonder we really feel the struggle at times.

But living with that sense of overwhelm doesn't feel good, isn't good for us, and affects our effectiveness and future as an activist.

So how do we move ourselves towards thriving? Here are a number of things to consider.

Allow time for fun, time-out, recharging the batteries. Aim to accumulate positive experiences and emotions. Think about things that have helped you relax and unwind in the past, and schedule these things in regularly. This helps on two levels - you enjoy it at the time, and you get pleasure from looking forward to it.

We always do better when our basic physical needs are met, and it's hard to truly thrive without enough sleep, balanced eating, and exercise. But actually these habits can be the hardest of all to develop and maintain, and some struggle more than others. Wouldn't everyone be glowing if it were that easy? If these are a struggle for you, start with a small change that you know you can manage, and move on from there. Enlist support from a caring and motivating friend or professional if that helps.

Be aware of physical illnesses and symptoms. Most conditions can at least be improved. Be active in seeking treatment. Keep an open but questioning mind in relation to all health care practitioners - traditional or not - both have important things to offer. Getting even chronic conditions under optimal control means you have more space in life for living well.

Do unpleasant emotions overwhelm you? Or do you feel nothing at all? We rely on our emotional selves to be effective as an activist, so be as emotionally healthy as you can be. Being aware of the cruelty around us in a non-vegan world creates emotional challenges for vegans, and leaves us more vulnerable to feelings of anger, depression, guilt, anxiety and helplessness. We need to take extra care to keep ourselves well, but whenever we feel especially captured by, powerless or numb in relation to our emotions it is a strong signal to pay serious attention to our emotional health.

There are options to suit everyone - information, screening tools, and even treatment programs can be found online (try BeyondBlue or MindSpot), or you may prefer to speak to a qualified person face-to-face. If you feel reluctant to talk about how you are feeling, keep in mind that supporting your emotional health will ultimately help you be more effective in your activism. At the very least speak to a trusted friend.

A powerful support for your thriving activist self is other vegan activists. Being with others who understand your perspective and the issues you confront is an antidote to the indifference you encounter elsewhere. They also provide support and encouragement in your activism, and essential social connection. Hopefully, amongst the serious walk and talk, there is also space for fun, frivolity and laughter. And celebration of every small success.

The possibilities for thriving activism are endless - both in what you do, and how much you do of it. The challenge is that for everything we are doing there is so much more that could be done. For all of us who are impatient to see great change in the world, this is confronting, and can lead to frustration with ourselves (and others). The advice from experienced activists is always the same, and takes some honest self-reflection.

What are you good at? What interests you most? What can you realistically manage? Think in terms of time, skills, finances, energy, health, other commitments. Remember to include time for keeping yourself well and thriving, and doing other mundane tasks life requires of us. Being real when you decide what to contribute is key to being able to follow through. Nothing is more depleting than working beyond your capacity yet still not meeting your internalised goals.

A great source of encouragement is keeping in mind the successes of other great social movements. I draw a sense of perspective from the film Amazing Grace, about the struggle against the legal, socially accepted and financially lucrative trade of humans from Africa to around the world two centuries ago. Although human slavery continues even now, the activists of the 17th and 18th centuries had many great successes, and overturned the legal and social norms of their time. And so many different people, using different strategies and playing different roles, all contributed towards to the outcome.

None of this is 'rocket surgery' (a seriously bad joke), but if we are in a place of low energy, depletion or feel enmeshed in the struggle of it all, even contemplating change can be overwhelming, and lead to further self-criticism. Hold that thought! Take a moment to scale yourself between 1 and 10 on the 'struggling to thriving' dimension. Now think: what would it take to move you up that scale just 1 point? What would it be like to be one more point of 'thriving'? What could you do today to make this more likely? Choose something do-able, and start to build your flourish!

Michelle Gravolin is a member of the Australian Association of Social Workers and President of Vegan NSW.

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