|Uniya - Jesuit Social Justice Centre||CONTENTS||Summer 1995|
Work designed to promote social justice generally develops through stages, some of them hazardous to health. Initially compassion may draw a person toward others struggling or in pain. Then the plight of people under oppression evokes indignation. Their cause becomes a passion. Finally, to accompany them becomes a personal mission. All of this is admirable in itself, but in the process the person involved can be channelled into a tunnel of work.
Social activists, like other busy people, tend to define their identity through their workplace. They may become harrowed rather than committed, lose touch with what is creative in themselves and grow distant from the spirit of the poor. Once out of touch with the struggle and with their own hearts, they discover how difficult it is to find love on the run. Their capacity for deep friendship diminishes. There are fewer ‘light’ moments and less sense of enjoying God’s love and doing God’s work.
Part of what keeps a social activist energised is the good news sometimes found in the midst of struggle - stories that convey the triumph of the human spirit in the midst of suffering and injustice.
Social activists too often experience loss of energy, enthusiasm,
idealism, ambition and purpose. They find themselves working
inefficiently, finding it difficult to respond positively to change
or challenge. They feel either detached or trapped. They complain
more than usual, become grumpy with others and fail to put a
favourable interpretation on other people’s actions. Eventually they
feel isolated and suspicious. They may also have trouble sleeping,
seldom exercise and suffer colds and ’flu.
This pattern brings misery, leading some to compensate with increased alcohol consumption, inappropriate sexual behaviour or other flights from depression. Compulsive disorders lead to further depression and a loss of passion for those they once assisted. Then cynicism about others’ needs sets in. Action is required before they harm themselves and those they serve.
This cycle can only be reversed by finding space and time: space to appreciate one’s giftedness again, and time for God’s creative power to work. But first the miserable feelings need to be owned, and the fact that the person is now on the margins of their own existence. Time to meditate is vital, time to get in touch again with the mystery of life. Gradually a sense of ministry and mission will remerge, perhaps aided by the companionship of a good guide.
But prevention of burnout is better than cure. For this, these guidelines are important:
An activist needs to develop a style of life and labour adapted to the real needs of people. What then emerges is a freedom to create new structures and a willingness to go where the needs are greatest. After all, ours is a service designed to help the human spirit find freedom.