New Orleans In responding to questions and answers after the documentary, “The Organizer,” very few questions have stumped me, but some have. I no longer remember where I was asked this particular question, perhaps in one of the English cities, but it could have easily been elsewhere, an earnest young woman asked me, “What do you do for self-care?” I found myself tongue-tied for a minute at the unfamiliarity of the question. I somewhat understood the words, “self-care,” but as I searched my brain for an appropriate answer, I recognized that this was definitely not my area of expertise.
I found myself finally answering that I had stopped smoking 25 years ago, though in all frankness I had to credit a deal I had made with my daughter about her not sucking her thumb in exchange for that promise, and that despite her following through on her part almost immediately, I had had to ask her for several extensions before I succeeded in living up to my part of the bargain. People in the audience laughed, and I escaped to another query, but surely it was obvious that this was nowhere in the top 20 or maybe even top 50 items on my list of priorities in supervising organizers and other staff in the almost 50 years in which that has been part of my job.
I have never believed in burnout. I’ve seen people lose their way in the work. Certainly, people find the work is not for them or that they can’t see the victory at the end of the endless tunnel of struggle. I’ve seen people adjust their views of their lives of course, but in our community of organizers, I’m not sure I know of a case of burnout or have ever witnessed such a thing, despite the fact that people talk about it incessantly. Of course, we also talked about work-life balance. We shooed people out of the office late at night many times. We had a personal days policy that allowed us to give people a day or two off after a long stretch in an organizing drive or a campaign where they might have worked endless days and hours without a break, but we always argued, or at least I argued, that we “worked until the job was done,” whether that meant a short day or a long one. It was my job to make sure that the work got done. It was their job to make their decisions and live their lives when the work was over. We didn’t meddle much in self-care in any institutional way aside from basic schedules and benefits.
Too often the questions that knock on the door of “self-care” are really embedded in the hope that the questioner can find a rational to do less, making the question more an excuse than about good personal habits. Not drinking, quitting smoking, realizing that daily exercise is critical to maintaining an ability to do the work and manage the hours, laying off of donuts for breakfast and counting the cups of coffee during the day, having a family, and maintaining love and the loves of your life, going to bed before 1030, and waking up early all add up to self-care in my world. This is a list of what I do, but not what I say that others must do. We can’t be in loco parentis. We have to respect peoples’ own personal decisions as long as they make the measure in the work.
The one item that I do recommend is doing the work within the structure of an organization and a community, because it is impossible to do the work alone. That’s not just good organizing, but the most important ingredient in self-care in my experience.
Please enjoy Rita Coolidge’s Doing Fine Without You.
Thanks to KABF.