How activists can fight through doom and gloom to be more effective

When the biggest changes seem impossible, activists can still take important steps to empower themselves and build for long-term success.

SOURCEWaging Nonviolence

One of the most frequent questions I get from Sunrise Movement members and other young activists is: “How do you keep going considering all the tough situations you’ve been through?”

It’s a good question. On Earth Day, I risked arrest again — this time at age 84, even while storm clouds gather in my country that for some observers suggest a possible civil war. Meanwhile, the mass media report numerous studies of rising anxiety and depression, especially among younger people.

How can we access the positive energy that enables us to keep going through doom and gloom? Over my seven decades of activism, I’ve found three ways activists can generate the kind of staying power that’s needed for long-term success.

1. Choose for impact

The early doomsday moment in my life was when U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev played “chicken” with the future of civilization. In October 1962, Kennedy threatened nuclear war over the Soviets’ having put some missiles on Cuban soil aimed at us. Sober analysis later revealed that the Soviet missiles weren’t a real security threat; the actual power equation was that the missiles represented only the appearance of a shift in the balance of power.

Deep inside, we all have a truth barometer. When we try to kid ourselves, we diminish our own power.

When the mass media told us the stakes on that October day, the American public went into near-paralysis. At the University of Pennsylvania where I was in grad school, no one could study. I jumped up on a wall in the center of campus and began to street-speak on the folly of our national leaders. Hundreds gathered immediately. I welcomed critical questions and responses, and our numbers continued to grow, including professors and uniformed ROTC cadets. We continued for hours.

Finally exhausted, I went home to unwind, glad I hadn’t gone downtown to join an impromptu peace demonstration being held to urge Kennedy to come to his senses. Why avoid the peace protest? I knew the reality: The decisions on our destiny were being made by a small group around Khrushchev and one around Kennedy. (In the U.S., not even Congress played a role.) We the people had absolutely no influence on whether we’d be blown to smithereens.

I was content with my choice to bypass the protest in order to do something genuinely useful: raise consciousness in my community for follow-up movement-building. I did what would prove useful if we lived through this. We might not wake up tomorrow, but today I had the satisfaction of making the most of a perilous situation and, just as important, not kidding myself. Each time I pretend and go through the motions, I undermine my own confidence — and therefore power and well-being.

In recent years, I’ve seen a tremendous lot of ritualistic social action that has no chance of impact because it’s not linked to a strategy for movement-building that can build sufficient power down the road to make a difference. I suppose people organize these ritualistic actions to “feel better,” but if they have any political sophistication at all they know it’s protest for the sake of protest. Deep inside, we all have a truth barometer. When we try to kid ourselves, we diminish our own power.

If we want to empower ourselves for the longer run, we can make choices that increase our chance of impact.

2. Address old hurts that weaken us

All of us grow up experiencing hurts and limitations that prevent us from reaching our full potential. As a working-class boy, for example, I was taught that I was less valuable than professional middle-class and rich kids in my town, and that made it right that they got more investment in their development than I got in mine. That sense of being inferior made me anxious about leadership, because that’s not where it was socially appropriate for me to be.

Prompted by my rebel spirit, I joined the debate team and entered public speaking contests, even while suffering in the process because part of me believed I had no right to be there: the “imposter syndrome.”

It probably helped that I was white, and tall. Fortunately, a few adults saw me as a “diamond in the rough” and pushed and pulled me along, as my skills kept developing. However, my inherited attitude of “less-than” remained, buried. The conflict within me was a fault line, making me vulnerable to circumstantial stress. As I gained more experience as an activist organizer, I took on more and more. While everyone agreed that I could handle it, I avoided looking inside too deeply.

I’d find myself tongue tied when asked to list my accomplishments, even though I knew, objectively, there were many. If that’s how some of us activists are about our work, why would others want to take it up?

In adulthood, a close friend introduced me to a personal growth tool that encouraged catharsis through emotional expression. Despite my training as a man, I learned to cry. That began a practice that continues to this day: to choose to respond to hurt and sadness by crying instead of “stuffing it” with drugs and alcohol. Underneath the crying, I often found an insight waiting to surface — something important for me to discover that busyness kept hidden. I learned that insights were more likely to surface when I was crying with someone who knew they didn’t need to “fix” me with advice, instead patiently paying attention while I was doing that important work. After the cry, I felt better and had more attention for the next task, or for play.

Nearly always, the sadness or hurt in the immediate situation that provoked the crying leads me, when I’m patient, to an old story from the past — even from my childhood — revealing a wound that never quite healed. I’m sometimes amazed that we can have a large wound covered over with layers of denial and for decades not even consciously remember it.

If that wound had in fact no impact on our behavior today, we might as well leave it alone. Who cares? I’m resigned to not being perfect in this life. I want to be an activist working toward peace and justice for all of us rather than seeking self-perfection.

Some part of me, however, actively seeks my liberation and wants me fully available to work and to love. One night while sleeping with a lover in another town, I suddenly awoke in a state of terror. He and I had reached a new degree of emotional intimacy, and I was feeling remarkably safe with him. All the more surprising that I awoke so suddenly, threw on my clothes with trembling hands and told him I felt an urgent need to head for home.

I broke speed limits all the way and, when finally home, called a friend who could listen to me. He came over to my house and settled down with warmth and patience. Soon an image surfaced for the first time: When I was a young boy, I was sexually violated. I trembled, my teeth chattered, it felt like the tears would never stop.

At last I could attend to that need for healing.

The vision we have — or lack of one — influences how we go about things: Is our focus to critique ourselves and each other, or to lift each other up?

No wonder I’d been so guarded with men all those years, sometimes expressed in less than easy comradeship with other activists. As I continued to work with that memory, allowing the repressed hurt and anger to surface and be released, I also saw an irony in how we humans can grow. In that relationship with the sweet lover in another town, I’d exercised my power to take more chances — to risk deeper intimacy — and then I encountered the crusty layer of resistance: the terror, that stemmed from an old, unhealed wound. It was when I was brave enough to trust more deeply that my boyhood injury could come into the light of day. And so my healing began, which increased the power available to me.

I don’t recommend frantically speeding down roads in the middle of the night! A less chancy way to make discoveries that lead to empowering healing is personal growth groups organized to support activists. Gestalt therapist Niela Miller led weekend groups for members of Philadelphia’s Movement for a New Society for many years. Gestalt is one of the humanistic forms of psychological work that emphasize the positive, unrealized potential that can be released by healing old wounds.

One of my many discoveries in Niela’s group was how strongly, as a boy, I’d fixated on the comic book hero Superman. The hero was of course all about justice. The negative, however, was that he was impossible to imitate, and my work always looked puny by comparison.

As I grew older, my issues with Superman drifted into my subconscious — its hidden power creating a subtle drag that prevented me from fully celebrating success in my activist projects. I’d find myself tongue tied when asked to list my accomplishments, even though I knew, objectively, there were many.

If that’s how some of us activists are about our work, why would others want to take it up? What are other ways out there that hold us back from radiantly sharing about the good work we do?

3. Discover the potential that is waiting to grow

There’s plenty of evidence that movements with a creative vision to replace the evil they address stand to gain big advancements. Nevertheless, many movements fail to create a vision, even when the public asks them to. I’ve wondered why we deliberately refuse to do that which would give us more power.

Then I remembered the history of psychological therapy. First came the pessimistic Freudians, whose emphasis seemed to be on learning more and more of the bad news about you and me. Rebellious humanistic psychologists came along later and brought a vision with them. Their focus was on our unrealized potential, the power we have to love more fully and work more effectively. The vision we have — or lack of one — influences how we go about things: Is our focus to critique ourselves and each other, or to lift each other up?

The good news about ourselves is that we have more potential to make a positive difference. That’s why I wrote my book “How We Win.” I’ve found that holding a vision can be a beautiful thing, for the campaign I’m working on and for me, too. I know that some activist communities can rise to this.

When, at age 52, I’d grown deeply tired and on the verge of burn-out, my longtime partner Johnny Lapham urged me to take a sabbatical, bringing our community together to fund it. I then took the four levels of training workshops available from the humanistic psychology-based Insight Seminars. The final session was a month of intensive, often 12-hour days, with one day off in the middle.

That sabbatical year proved to be a springboard for three decades of productivity that included co-founding Training for Change, leading activist workshops on five continents, teaching and innovating at Swarthmore College, founding Earth Quaker Action Team and writing several books.

What was the process in Insight Seminars? To stretch me and invite healing; repeat; repeat again. The facilitators reinforced a vision of the human potential that I could otherwise lose in moments of fatigue and discouragement.

As in the days of Kennedy’s and Khrushchev’s brinkmanship, we don’t yet have a mass movement powerful enough to defeat our ruling class on the biggest issues.  Instead, we can use smaller wins to build the movement’s strength.  That action strategy supports stretching, inviting healing, being grateful that we can wake again tomorrow and repeat.


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George Lakey co-founded Earth Quaker Action Group which just won its five-year campaign to force a major U.S. bank to give up financing mountaintop removal coal mining. Along with college teaching he has led 1,500 workshops on five continents and led activist projects on local, national, and international levels. Among many other books and articles, he is author of “Strategizing for a Living Revolution” in David Solnit’s book Globalize Liberation (City Lights, 2004). His first arrest was for a civil rights sit-in and most recent was with Earth Quaker Action Team while protesting mountain top removal coal mining.