Oh, Empathy: First in a Series by SarahGrace Gomez

Let’s be honest. 2017 was hard.

When I finished my Master’s thesis, I submitted the document and then I curled up in a ball on my bed and I cried for an hour. Researching racism and using zombies to communicate the totality of death and violence that characterizes racist action left me feeling broken. While I wrote about premature death and the dehumanization of marginalized peoples, cops kept shooting unarmed black men in the streets. Donald Trump was finishing his first 100 days in office.

I cried because I felt like my thesis was a warning of what would come. The future toward which we hurtled felt more apocalyptic than utopic, and fighting for peace was becoming too much. By August, a neo-Nazi had murdered an anti-racist activist in the streets of Charlottesville. By November, they had gathered on the Boston Common twice. By December, I was tired, and supremely over the year as a capsule of America unraveling. I did what the self-help blogs on Buzzfeed and Huffington Post told me to do; I bought some face masks. I got my hair cut. I ate a kale salad. True to the narrative of self-care that has become so popular in these uncertain days, I excavated time for myself. It did not help.

2017 wasn’t just hard. It hurt. When the stakes were so high, and there was still so much work to be done, I was burning out fast, and I wasn’t alone. My entire network of change-makers and justice warriors ached under the pressure of our work, and we were all searching for respite. My friend who works with Crisis Text Line showed me her notes on compassion fatigue, and they sounded exactly like the tips my friend who works in an animal shelter said she and her colleagues discuss. My friend who used to work at a needle exchange suggested we bring in 2018 by doing face masks, putting on makeup, painting our nails, and practicing the kind of self-care we think will work. In comparison to the work we do, the methods we have for self-care feel commodified, one-dimensional, and insufficient.

This leads me to a few questions:

Why is it so exhausting to practice empathy? And how has the language of self-care ultimately failed us? More importantly, how do we make it work for us?

I decided to write this post because I wanted to put to practice the vision we have for Writing For Peace regional chapters. This content was supposed to be a way to not just discuss empathy exhaustion as a huge problem in activist communities, but to also try to find my own peace in the face of my fatigue. When I told my friends, many of whom are involved with Aids Action Committee, Crisis Text Line, Food Not Bombs and addiction harm reduction, that I was going to write about empathy exhaustion, the resounding response was, “Oh my GOD, I so know what you mean.” It no longer was that selfish project of blogging about exactly how tired I was, it became an ethnography of activists who are at risk of losing hope despite all efforts to avoid that fate.

This will be a series of blog posts dedicated to giving activists the space to contend with their empathy, their exhaustion, their forms of self-care, and where they fit taking care of themselves into their mission of saving others. In the new year, I will continue to explore how the rhetoric of self-care has become insufficient in the face of the work we do and the exhaustion we face, and how we can all fight back so we can all keep fighting.

Happy New Year. Let’s learn how to take care of you.

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