By: Lorelei Erisis*/TRT Columnist—
If you’ve met me, or seen the work I do out in the world, you’ll know that I am very much a political animal. As a caring human being, a public figure, and an activist, I want to stand up and fight all the injustice I see, everywhere I go. I want to help everyone I can. But for one single individual, even one as motivated and somehow energetic as I am, that is just not possible.
I have come to realize that to be most effective I have to learn to pick my battles. It’s certainly one of the hardest lessons to learn as an activist, or for anyone who genuinely cares about the world and wants to do what they can to help. But, it’s absolutely vital.
I have seen so many people flare and burn out. Good comrades. Strong fighters.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. Before last November, it feels like much of the activist burnout I saw was usually a result of over ambition; of folks trying to fight too many injustices because they care so much.
After last November, especially once Trump began his reign of terror, this activist burnout seems to be happening everywhere I look. People I never saw at a protest or an organizers meeting before are suddenly overwhelmed by all the battles they are trying to fight and injustices they are seeing.
It can feel like the Alt-Right, the GOP, and the MAGAs (Trump supporters) are trying to wear us all down through a strategy of inducing “outrage fatigue.” There are so many horrible things happening so quickly—all piling up faster than any normal human can comprehend—much less fight; that it’s quite simply exhausting.
In order to stay sane, healthy, and effective, I’ve had to learn to do a sort of activism triage. There are several questions I will ask myself when I’m trying to decide if I should get involved with an individual, an issue, a movement, a march or a protest.
Here are a few of them.
First, do you have free time and energy to spare?
This may seem incredibly obvious, but I have seen so many people skip this step, myself included. They commit themselves to a fight that is important to them. But without the time to devote to the cause, or the energy available to fight the good fight, this often winds up not only exhausting a person, but making them radically less effective in the fight they have committed themselves to.
The fighter ends up a husk and often the original problem remains unsolved.
Next, you have to ask yourself about the fight itself and the people already fighting it. What do they have already? In terms of resources, people, access, or any other relevant factors; would one person showing up make a difference? You may want to help. But, will your help be useful to the actual cause?
What do you have to contribute? Is there a special skill you posses? Are you a good artist? A talented writer? Can you organize? Speak to crowds? Are you a leader with a talent for inspiring people or a dedicated worker who can get things done?
Maybe you have connections the cause needs. Or, you have money to help finance the movement. Whatever it is you have that you can contribute—even if you don’t know the answer to this going in—the sooner you can answer this question, the more helpful your participation will be.
Also ask whether this is the best way you can help. What are your strengths in relation to the needs of those already fighting? For instance, good leadership skills are great and sometimes all too rare. But a movement with too many leaders will never get anything done, even if you can avoid the conflicts created by too many captains trying to steer the ship. The ship isn’t actually going anywhere unless you’ve got a crew to do the grunt work of casting off the lines, untangling the rigging, raising the sails, and mending them when they rip.
Another excellent question to consider is this: What kind of ripple effect could come from your participation? Are there others who will follow you into the fight? Are there some already involved who might resent your presence? What else might come of your participation?
This is certainly a question I have to ask myself. I know I come into any fight with a certain amount of baggage. I can bring a larger spotlight to a cause, through my media skills and high degree of visibility.
But, I also have done some things with my life that can be used as a weapon against me and those I associate with. I’ve been a sex worker and a comic. I have seen both of those things actively used to attack me, and by proxy, the cause I am fighting for.
For every fight you join, it’s important to do a sort of cost-benefit calculation. Are the skills and baggage I bring helpful or harmful to the cause? In what degrees? Can some balance be found?
Having answered these questions, the next one to ask would be about the people, cause, or movement you are joining. Do you think that what they’re doing makes actual sense? Is it work you think will be effective? Are they using an approach you can agree with and support? Is it a fight worth fighting or a misdirection of resources?
If after answering all of these questions satisfactorily enough you still want to join the cause, fight the fight, or fill out the ranks of the movement, I offer this caution. Don’t be the person who joins in just to pump up your own ego, or simply to make yourself feel better about the problem that prompted you to join in the first place.
Be ready to listen to those already fighting, as well as those who join later. Know when to take the lead and when to fall back to support. Even if you are a leader, ask how best you can help. Don’t expect that just because you think you have a better solution to the problems faced, or a way to make the organization more streamlined, that you are correct. Perhaps your solution has already been tried, and discarded. Perhaps your own experience, or privilege, blinds you to the experience and actual needs of your new comrades.
Go to the people already fighting. Seek them out. Learn from their wisdom and experience. Don’t expect that they should come to you or that you won’t have to earn their attention to your own ideas.
Keep these simple questions in mind as you try to parse the struggles and battles of the coming days, months, and years. Even keep them in mind as you fight the battles that arise on the more personal level. Remember, picking your battles is a vital part of self-care. It’s simply doing what you need to do so that you may keep fighting until the war is won.
*Lorelei Erisis is an actor, activist, adventurer and pageant queen. Send your questions about trans issues, gender and sexuality to her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.