In the months post-Brexit the importance of ‘self care’ has become a hot topic of conversation. Campaigners, activists, many on the left have been struggling to find hope in these bleak political times. We definitely need to look after ourselves. But I don’t think self care is enough – we need to look after each other, to get through tough times and to organise for the future we want.
How has Brexit felt?
First off, for many who care about progressive social change in the UK, it’s something of an understatement to say that it’s been a very difficult time. The Parliamentary left has collapsed into increasingly absurd infighting while UKIP have risen in the polls, and the new Governmental ministerial line up is the most right wing in my lifetime. The rise in visible xenophobia and racism is truly terrifying. I haven’t experienced this directly but I have heard many stories from migrant and black friends and colleagues who have felt increasingly anxious and unsafe in the country that is their home.
For those of us invested in trying to make the world a better place in or outside work, this all feels pretty heartbreaking. Many I know have felt overwhelmed by despair, having to check out of social media and withdraw from any news or activism. I’ve also heard increasing stories of campaigners ‘burning out’, like this incredible blog from Joe Hall (not instigated by Brexit as far as I know, but a very eloquent and honest description of burnout from the inside). I’ve been going through a tough time myself, coming out of a 10 year relationship and doing some serious re-evaluating of my work and life plans. I’ve had days where I’ve struggled to cope, bouts of insomnia, and even had a couple of panic attacks, which I’d never suffered from before.
Enter the call to prioritise ‘self care’- in my work circles and on social media this is advice I’ve played a role in giving. Self care is important and the society we live in doesn’t value it enough or encourage us to make space for it. This lovely piece entitled 101 self care suggestions for when it all feels too much sums up what this means and gives some great advice. I’ve taken lots of it myself and I’ve managed to move from a place on the brink of meltdown to feeling much calmer and healthier – I’ve been meditating every day for months now and it’s made a huge difference to my quality of life.
However, I think it’s important to recognise that while self care is a tool we need, it isn’t the solution. Firstly, we need to acknowledge there are massive fundamental problems with the structure of our society and economy that make people sick. We’ve got patriarchy, white supremacy, ableism and many other intersectional hierarchies which pervade the structures of our institutions and our minds, dictating whose lives are most important, whose opinions and experiences are ‘normal’ and valuable, and ultimately who has money and power. Self care won’t change these, but it will help us be better equipped for the hard work of trying to navigate and transform them.
What about collective care?
Secondly, one of the big problems of globalised neoliberalism is the way it frames everything in terms of individual action and self interest. Self care clearly isn’t enough – we need collective care. This means we shouldn’t just be taking responsibility for our own well being, we must take care of each other. We’re social creatures that exist in interdependence with each other. As David Mitchell (the author) puts it:
Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.
We don’t just need to collectively support each other through tough times – collective care is essential for effective radical campaigning. The incredible Barcelona En Comu, which has seen anti-evictions activist Ada Colau take over as Mayor of the city, came from the inspiring anti-austerity movement spanning Catalunya and Spain. At the heart of this broad movement were many communities practicing daily collective care, looking after each other’s children, eating together, resisting together. Here in London, Sweets Way and the more recent Sisters Uncut occupations have also been built around these principles. We need to organise, in and as communities, to bring this fractured country back together and collectively shape the future so it works for the many and not the few.
We all need to be picking up emotional labour
The danger of saying we all need to be looking after each other is that the emotional labour involved in doing this is picked up disproportionately by women. This is a great guide to what is meant by emotional labour, but basically it means all the work that is done to be considerate of each other, make social interactions run smoothly, empathise etc etc. Yeah, I can already hear some of you saying ‘not all men’… But as the author I linked to writes:
“Like all gendered dynamics, of course, this isn’t exclusive to male-female interactions and the imbalance doesn’t always go in the same direction.”
That said, this does hold as a general truth. Our society conditions women to work hard at this as part of the way we perform our femininity – on the flip side, men are conditioned not to pay nearly as much attention to it. When we’re thinking about this we need to watch out for taking structural problems personally – I recently heard Black Lives Matter Dallas activist Chaedria talk and she labelled this as ‘privilege fragility’. I’m as guilty of it as anyone else. It’s hard to hear we’re behaving in ways that oppress others and not take this personally. But we’re playing out much wider structural problems, and to address these we need to start with listening and reflecting.
What to do?
I’ve been having lots of conversations with friends and colleagues about what to do now. There’s been a huge surge of interest and passion to get involved with politics and campaigning, which has been fighting a wave of despair at what’s going on in the world. So as I think I’ve made the argument above “take care of yourself, and each other.” That has to come first. Make sure you’re not burning out, take time to do whatever feels right to look after yourself (I’m really excited about going on a mindfulness for social change course with Ecodharma in October). Ask others how they’re doing. Care for friends and family. Make the effort to take things on for people who aren’t doing well, and make space for them to be able to talk to you about it / ask for help if they need it.
And when you feel ready to engage…
There’s so much going on! From the incredible #ShutDown actions which kicked off the launch of Black Lives Matter UK to the rise of Sisters Uncut, there’s a lot to be excited about. Do some research, google local groups working on the issues you care most about. If the thing you most want to get involved with doesn’t exist, think about whether you have time to help start it yourself. I’m looking at starting my own organisation to help build strong UK social movements, but I’m taking time to do lots of reflecting and research while taking care not to overstretch myself.
But the movement doesn’t just need people to take radical action, we need organisers, skills of all kinds, introverts and extroverts. You can even start with something as simple as finding a way to have a conversation with friends and family who disagree with your politics, if you’re able to listen to them without becoming angry. Or volunteering in a local project to get out of your bubble and meet people in you community.
Space for hope
I want to finish with a quote from Rebecca Solnit that I’ve had on my wall at home and next to my desk at work. I find comfort in it right now. As well as being a trying time where it seems like everything is going wrong, we’re also in the middle of a big historical shift, and that means opportunity for great change if we work together to steer things in the direction we want.
Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency.
Hope should shove you out of the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal…
To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment is what makes the present inhabitable.
P.S. I saw Josie Long’s work in progress stand up show in Edinburgh and she described exactly how I felt about Brexit and came on stage with a copy of the book this quote comes from! Plus she was hilarious. Go see her if you can 🙂
P.P.S. Massive thanks to my friend Kat Wall for suggesting I write this