You’ve just sat down to a relaxing cold bottle of something. You’re ready for an hour’s R&R when— wham!—it hits you. And totally wrecks your peace of mind. The “it” I’m talking about is the weight of the world.
Maybe this sort of thing never happens to you. If so, good for you and go enjoy the rest of S.W.A.T. with my blessing. But if you’re a regular reader of this column, or a political activist, or even just a person who stays informed about the world, I’ll bet it does happen to you occasionally: you get overwhelmed by the evils in the world and your own inability to solve huge problems. Specifically, perhaps, you’re burdened by the loss of American liberty or new threats to gun rights. But it could be anything. Terrorism. Economic doom. Corruption. The lies of poly-ticks. The rise of the surveillance state.
We are activists because we aim to fix things. We are informed citizens because we believe information is a tool to be used. We believe in freedom and individual rights, and with those come weighty things like duty and personal responsibility. We hear (and perhaps even speak) admonitions like Edmund Burke’s ubiquitous “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” And being good men (and women), we feel driven to get up off our butts and do something.
Trouble is, of course, that the world’s supply of trouble is vast beyond our ability to conquer.
We respond to insurmountable evil in different ways. Some activists throw themselves into one cause after another, burning out when they discover they can’t do it all. Others devote themselves relentlessly to one cause where they think they can make a difference and work until they darned near kill themselves (gun rights activist Mike Vanderboegh and Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes come to mind). Some strive for balance according to the serenity prayer, accepting the things they cannot change and facing those they can change with courage.
But if we care, if we’re aware, we’re sometimes overwhelmed. (Even for followers of the serenity prayer, the really hard part is “the wisdom to know the difference”—which implies knowing our own limitations.)
When we reach that point, it may seem as if the only courses of action are to throw our hands in the air and quit or redouble our only semi-successful efforts and work until we drop. That’s a false dichotomy, though. Quitting accomplishes nothing, and redoubling efforts that aren’t working is just dumb. As security expert Bruce Schneier observes, “It’s an attitude I’ve seen before: ‘Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do it.’ Never mind if the something makes any sense or not.”
There’s another, more sensible way: change tactics.
But changing tactics isn’t as easy as changing our socks. It may require a top-to-bottom re-evaluation of the problem. It may require a look deep within ourselves to discover what strengths we bring to a situation, what we’ve been doing right and, more importantly, what we haven’t gotten right. It may take time. It may be a brutal process. Honesty is painful.
This kind of reflection is hard in the best of times and more difficult than ever in a world so filled with distractions. (Why hurt your brain with thinking when you can binge-watch House of Cards?)
There’s a traditional way for activists to find the time and impetus for deep re-evaluation. It’s a way that’s proven effective for centuries. Many religious and political leaders (not to mention writers and dissidents) have tried it over the years and often done their best work and reached their greatest heights in the aftermath. You won’t like their method, though: go to jail.
A few former jailbirds who spring to mind: Solzhenitsyn, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, non-violence crusader Gene Sharp, Martin Luther King, Roger Baldwin (co-founder of the ACLU), Aung San Suu Kyi, Emma Goldman, Malcolm X, Vaclav Havel, and Voltaire. Never mind their particular politics. They were all transformed—and became more effective—by spending time in durance vile. Thousands of others have done the same.
Activist types aren’t good at idleness. Being forcibly locked up gives a body no choice. You have to be still. If you’re a thinker, you think. If you’re a writer, you write (or get new ideas for writing). If you’re an agitator, you probably think about agitating—and how you can do it more effectively.
But nobody in his right mind wants to go that route!
Fact is, though, when we feel the vast weight of the world on our shoulders and think that either burnout or “doing something, anything” are our only options, it’s time to stop. Time for a spell of enforced isolation from the fray. Time to quit what isn’t working or what’s wearing us down, but not to rush into anything else.
If jail isn’t a desirable option and if sitting still drives you crazy, you can create necessary inner stillness while working with your hands. For some, the more mindless the work, the better (digging ditches, painting the house). Others find that work requiring careful craftsmanship (gunsmithing, landscaping, or building an inlaid table) is better. I’ve found over the years that almost any job in which I handle earthy materials (brick, stone, wood, clay) puts me in the proper state of mind.
Immersing yourself in reading or writing can do it. Watching TV can’t. Growing and cooking food can enhance contemplation. Shoving chips into our maws, nope. Computers and smartphones can be informative, but they’re as anti-reflective as can be. Hikes and bike rides, good. Video games, nope. Plinking, excellent. Getting into arguments over which is the “best” caliber of ammo, nope.
When we’re overwhelmed, the key is to make time for our minds to work in the background. Once we allow them to, minds have an amazing way of figuring things out without a lot of conscious effort on our part. Physical activity helps the process along (which puts us way ahead of those folks thinking in their prison cells).
In short, sometimes the best thing an activist can do is … nothing. Until we’re rested and our minds let us know they’ve got something effective for us to do.
On gun rights, our side has been winning for 20 years and momentum is still with us—thanks to your hard, smart efforts. In no way am I saying or implying that gun-rights people are doing anything wrong. Far from it. I’m just saying we all need to be fit and focused— re-focused, if necessary—for a battle that will last a lifetime.
Sure as shootin’, though, somebody’s going to say, “That Claire Wolfe person wants us all to quit so the other side can win.” On the contrary. Think about this: The enemies of gun rights are changing their tactics. They’ve switched from “gun safety” to universal background checks, from big pushes at the federal level to state-level initiatives. Who knows what else they have in store?
As I write this, Seattle billionaire Nick Hanauer, fresh from having helped foist universal background checks on the people of his state, has announced a new initiative to achieve national results through (so far unspecified, but you know it won’t be good) local action. Soon we may need to be nimbler than ever, more ready to counter new threats.
And for that, we need refreshed minds and spirits.