One of the biggest dangers for activists is burnout. We asked some longtimers (about 500 years of combined activism) how they’ve paced themselves to stay the course. The questions were, “How have you managed to remain active and committed over the years? How do you avoid burnout?” Answers have been edited for length.
Ron Baiman: When our Chicago DSA meetings were down to six or seven people, what kept me going was my allegiance to close comrades. My guess is that likewise they didn’t want to let their friends down. I would say that the key to avoiding burnout is to forge close, lifelong friendships with other comrades!
Miriam Bensman: Cultivate warm, nurturing relationships in your political work, as well as outside it. We need a loving community to sustain ourselves. When I have descended into meanness, I have always regretted it personally AND found it counterproductive.
Jules Bernstein: I have been a union and worker side lawyer for almost 60 years and a member of the socialist movement since 1958. Socialist thought and activism have been satisfying, sometimes frustrating, but never dull.
Paul Buhle: Comrades involved in all manner of activities help keep me sane. Meeting folks from unfamiliar milieux makes internationalism feel real. Stay loose. New challenges will happen, and with them new learning.
Duane Campbell: Select campaigns and efforts that can make a difference, and then focus on those. I learned this discipline working with the United Farm Workers.
Carl Davidson: You’re running a marathon, not a sprint. Triage your tasks—those you are good at, those you want to learn, and those you’re not so interested in. Drop the last bunch. Learn to say “no” nicely, learn to delegate to others, and train them when you can.
George Fish: Have a private life away from politics that satisfies you. Limit your activism to what you want to do and are good at. And avoid frustrating involvement in toxic organizations.
Bill Mosley: The biggest factor is my relationships with other longtime activists. I figure as long as they can keep going, I can, too.
Maxine Phillips: A sense of solidarity with current and past socialists has sustained me. My religious faith gives me perspective. My family and friends give me emotional strength.
Michele Rossi: Make time for friends, family, and fun. Access to good quality psychotherapy at some key moments in my life has helped, too. Stay curious and open. The kind of activist/organizer you can be will change as you move into new phases of your life. Take it easy on the intoxicants. I have seen drink and other substances sap the abilities and well-being of too many talented organizers.
Max Sawicky: Figure out a way to live the way you want that accommodates your activism. If you don’t have some basic foundation of contentment, nobody will want to be around you to hear whatever you might have to say.
Kurt Stand: Sometimes we can do more, sometimes less according to the rhythms of our own life. Teach what you know but also listen and learn from those younger than yourself. Avoid becoming cynical by believing you have seen all, know all; rather, stay open to the present, alive to the future.
Peg Strobel: Find something that advances your politics and that you enjoy doing. Similarly, find friends, not just comrades, in your political work. The friendships will sustain you when the political work feels like a slog.
Milton Tambor: I have adopted Michael Harrington’s model of the long distance runner [who] understands that a radical agenda worth pursuing must be grounded in political reality.
James Williams: Learn to pick your fights and, most important!, have a life—other interests, friends, family, ways to nurture yourself. For many years, I used alcohol—not one of my better choices.