The bottom line here is really a question of maintaining healthy boundaries. Yes, we have a responsibility to do something to make the world a better place, but each of us alone cannot shoulder the burden for all the world's problems. If I were to cross Bono with Al Gore, even the resultant über-activist would not be able to right all the world's wrongs. Let's lose the guilt over what we cannot control.
Activism can take many forms. Focusing locally (for example, helping clean up a park or pitching in at a food pantry) has the potential to be a very satisfying experience. The fruits of one's labors may be immediately seen. Widening from local to global, the activist is usually more detached from the results. Donating money, writing letters to Congress, and signing online petitions are all worthwhile, but can lack the personal connection of local work. To add a "heart" dimension to this type of activism, connect it with spiritual practice. For example, visualize or meditate on the positive changes your donation will bring. Light a candle to honor someone touched by your cause, even if you do not know them by name. Say a prayer. Linking spirituality to activism can impart richness and depth to both.
Despite prioritizing, occasionally I play a little activist herdball myself. We all do. And that's ok. The important thing is to recognize it for what it is, to be aware of the media ebb and flow, and not to burn out by spending all our energy on the cause du jour. Again, the key issue is maintaining good boundaries, and being grounded in a healthy sense of perspective. I've found that it's possible to step onto the herdball field in a conscious way without ending up emotionally trampled. Try these:
- Set aside a fixed amount of money in your budget for causes that "pop up". Keep this separate from any money used to support your priority issues.
- Commit to an action such as phoning your Senators, signing petitions or attending vigils. Keep this as "your" response to herd-type causes. Do what you can. Don't stress over what you cannot do.
- Learn to recognize hype when you see it. I've received mailings that have heart-wrenching photos, provocative language and guilt-inducing pleas for money. Upon investigation, I discover that the group is financially irresponsible (or worse, a complete scam).
- In the same vein, make a habit of checking out charities, particularly those that are unfamiliar to you. There are several watchdog groups who monitor how charities spend their donations. Try www.give.org or www.charitywatch.org .
In the end, we must keep up our efforts over the long haul, and guard against activist burnout. The world needs all the help it can get. See you out on the field. Will it be herdball or soccer?
Rebecca Hecking is a writer based in northwest PA who focuses on spirituality and sustainable living, as well as managing editor for Primal Parenting. Her "priority" cause is the environment. However, she has been seen yelling at her television set, then furiously typing out feisty letters to Congress.