Again and again, I see activism that is born out of anger. Or another strong emotion.
The lawyer who told me she was driven to fight for women’s rights because of an assault on a childhood friend.
The successful entrepreneur turned philanthropist who told me he never wanted to live in the poverty his parents had experienced, that drove his business and the investments he made later in his life.
The social entrepreneur who told me she couldn’t stand to see what we were doing to the environment; that it caused her physical pain to think about the state of the planet.
I don’t think all activism is driven out of anger — of course not, we can’t hold on to any emotion — but it’s a common thread that seems, somehow, relevant to ‘the cause’.
Why do we think that? Why do we think it has any role at all? Why do some individuals I meet feel that they need to hold on to it to stay motivated? That, only when we dip into the depths of an emotion, particularly a negative one, will we be able to create change?
But, what if any emotion taken too seriously is destructive? What if we are innocently diverting ourselves from the very things we want to be doing? Staying stuck in an emotional groundhog day?
The environmental activist felt her feelings so deeply that she wanted to hide away. She couldn’t engage with the world she so wanted to impact. And that hurt led to a layer of self-judgement, paralysing her even more.
We’ve all experienced that I’m sure — we can’t seem to achieve what we’re capable of, so we feel ashamed, deeply ashamed sometimes, and the shame sends us even deeper into the hole we’re digging for ourselves.
Scaling it up can be more destructive…
And it’s not just our personal paralysis. I’ve seen again and again — back into the 1990’s when I was working with women’s organisations, right through to present-day politics, I see change being halted by in-fighting and bickering. What if all the energy we spend on that was put into the very cause we’re working towards — I’m sure we’ve all said that to ourselves, out-loud or even on Facebook!
And the irony, of course, is that we all want to move in the same direction — not the same specific direction necessarily, but towards something better. Whatever our definition of ‘better’, I’m sure you could get anyone on any end of the political spectrum to agree it included treating people with dignity and humanity. I’ve written before about politicians I’ve worked with being decent people, motivated to create positive change, but unable to always see or act clearly, unable to let go of their personal attachment to being right.
It all stems from the same root — that we need to feel a certain way to be OK, that we need to do something a certain way because of what it will facilitate in the future. For us. We don’t always see the ‘for us’ clearly, but it’s always there. Whenever there is disagreement, there is always ego.
But if so much activism is sparked by a strong emotional experience, how can that be wrong? What’s going on?
My best attempt to explain it is this:
That we mostly walk around in a teeny-tiny world of our own. We obsess about what to wear, what to eat, what time the kids need to be picked up, how to get the report finished, how to get a new job, does the dog only have the packing tape or is he doing something terrible in the other room… That world may extend beyond our personal physical space but it rarely extends beyond our personal experience.
That jolt of emotion comes as a wake-up call; a connection with the reality that there is something outside of our current obsessions.
And then we wake…
We see, in a flash, that the world is oh so much bigger and there is something beyond us. We get a new perspective, or we realise we’ve been living in a bubble and beyond the bubble there may be someone suffering whom we would like to help. Not because we must but because why wouldn’t we. In fact, if you’ve had those moments, I bet it didn’t even occur to you to question the motivation behind the action? I bet you were too busy doing something to spend time analysing it!
The emotion isn’t the relevant piece. We could have the same insight in a moment of quiet reflection — as happens often. Or walking down the street doing nothing. It’s the fact of the insight that has shown you something new about the world — not the emotional state you were in at the time it happened.
We don’t always see it that way; it looks as if the emotion was important and so we hold onto the memory of it. We try to recreate the anger to drive ourselves forward. No wonder we become so exhausted with life!
When we let go of the emotion, any emotion, we are making space for compassion and humanity. We are making space for clarity and understanding. We are making space for connection, and for joy.
So, is it always wrong?
Some would say that activism is always wrong. That trying to create change must be a symptom of mis-reading our experience in life. That we are, at the root, trying to change that experience rather connect with our humanity.
I’m not sure I see it quite the same way. Change is a constant in life and why wouldn’t we want to change thing. Maybe they look unfair, or maybe we think we can improve on them, or maybe for no reason at all, just because we can.
And what if that last one was the most effective?
Too often, we equate the strength of the emotion with the seriousness with which we are taking the issue. But effectiveness doesn’t come from emotion; it comes from clarity. It comes from focus, it comes from unattached advocacy, it comes from empowered leadership.
And the driver is because it’s the right thing to do, it’s obvious, it’s without thought, not in the sense of being ‘thoughtless’, but in the sense of not being personal. And none of those is made any better by adding a high temperature emotional state.
Add a little love..
And so it is with any change. When we allow ourselves to let go of the relevance and the importance of the emotion we’re feeling, when we can call a truce with our ego and declare it OK to not ‘win’ every time, then we will see more clearly, we’ll experience more joy, and we’ll create more impact in the world.
And we’ll be a more effective ‘activist’, if that’s how we label ourselves.
P.S. as I write the dog is pestering me for a walk — which seems the perfect expression of how life always presents the next thing on the to-do list and let’s me off the hook from ever having to think about it again. What a great way to live if only we were prepared to listen!
About the author
Cathy Presland is an expert in personal and professional leadership and an advanced transformative coach. She has more than two decades of experience in government and international organisations and her focus as a coach is to support impact-driven individuals and organisations to improve their performance, leadership and peace of mind so they can make more of a difference with the work they do.