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By Sidra Morgan-Montoya, Portland-based artist and writer 

Morning sunrise photo

The sunrise in Portland, from my window

By letting go of the belief that I am not valuable to my communities unless I extract every ounce of myself for others’ benefit, I have let go of the compulsion to push myself to the point of physical and psychological collapse.

This month, I’ve been watching the sunrise. From my east-facing window, I’ve observed vibrant red and orange fan out from the horizon, lighting clouds from below. I’ve never been an early riser. But something has shifted in me in the past few years.

After an adolescence of endless nights spent working and organizing, neglecting my body’s signs of exhaustion, and after the ensuing depression and self-loathing at my inability to ever do enough to tip the scales toward justice — my definition of enough began to change.

A host of adjustments followed, and these days, I’m sleeping better than I have in my entire life, waking up just in time to see the fall leaves backlit by dawn.

How did I accomplish this?

I’ve heard it said that one aim of liberation is a deeper connection between humanity and the natural world. Waking up to see the sunrise is my version of this.

Really, it’s all the truths from which my ability to see the sunrise follows — sleeping enough, having realistic expectations about my daily capacity, having the privilege to quit my night job, reorganizing my activities around my need for rest.

In other words, I am healing from the internalized capitalism that led me to believe I was ‘deficient.’ (I have actually realized the deficiency never existed in the first place.)

By letting go of the belief that I am not valuable to my communities unless I extract every ounce of myself for others’ benefit, I have let go of the compulsion to push myself to the point of physical and psychological collapse. By letting go of compulsion, I have been able to welcome the sunrise.

There are so many unconscious beliefs we bring to social justice — many of them are ironically internal manifestations of the very systems we seek to dismantle.

But this isn’t a story about personal choice being the path toward wellness; it’s a story about losing the community I’d found in organizing spaces because my body forced me to stop everything. Once I couldn’t keep pace with direct actions and hours-long project planning meetings, there was no way for me to remain a part of the community network that had come to mean so much to me.

Too often, rest and wellness are framed as individual responsibilities rather than tied to systemic inequity, as they should be. Too often, we perpetuate the myth that self-care is an individual task to manage, in the way we conduct progressive spaces.

There are so many unconscious beliefs we bring to social justice — many of them are ironically internal manifestations of the very systems we seek to dismantle.

Yet, beyond these limiting beliefs lay far sweeter things that can nourish us and increase our ability to care for one another in transformative ways. To do so, we need to tend to our internal landscapes, otherwise we will hurt one another, ourselves, and we will miss out on much of the love and creativity to be found in communities of justice.

Here are my offerings to each of our internal worlds — the things we don’t always talk about in justice-oriented spaces but still have tremendous bearing on our time with one another. These are my prayers for our futures together.

 let go of urgency // welcome patience

However, if we want our movements to be sustainable, we need to stop treating our bodies the way oil companies treat the earth.

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork,” wrote Thomas Merton in his 1966 work, Confessions of a Guilty Bystander.

“The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace,” he continues. “It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

Merton’s assessment is as true now as it was at the time of its publishing. The “frenzy of activism” runs rampant in social justice spaces, including the world of nonprofits.

Internalized white supremacist capitalism drives each of us to extract every last bit of our time, energy and life force in the quest for productivity (even when the aim of our efforts is the destruction of capitalism itself). However, if we want our movements to be sustainable, we need to stop treating our bodies the way oil companies treat the earth. Just as we respect the planet’s resources as finite, we need to approach ourselves with the same respect. This means letting go of any sense of urgency that drives you to deplete your internal energetic reserves and letting go of the expectation that others will drive themselves to that point as well.

On a somatic level, letting go of urgency means healing our nervous system.

During moments of crises, we saw tens of thousands of people suddenly join together this summer during the Black Lives Matter uprisings. There were moments of fierce resistance that were inspiring to experience and witness. But without replacing urgency with patience, we also saw the number of people engaged in liberation work gradually decline over time, as the body’s adrenaline depleted. It’s often impossible, long-term, to sustain the reactive fight response that motivates us during crisis.

On the difference between short- and long-term involvement in liberation, bell hooks writes, “Support can be occasional. It can be given and just as easily withdrawn. Solidarity requires sustained, ongoing commitment.”

Long-term solidarity requires each of us to find the rhythms of activity and rest that respect the limitations of our own physical and psychic energies. We need to create a progressive culture in which running our bodies into the ground is not seen as virtuous or as proof that we are more committed to justice than those that are unable or unwilling to self-sacrifice. We need to create spaces that welcome us at the levels of engagement that are realistic and healthy for each of us, without creating formal and informal hierarchies based on who “does the most.”

Unlearning urgency and accepting the paces of our own natural rhythms is a tremendous gift to give ourselves and to one another. If we want our organizing spaces to be more accessible to people with disabilities, working people with families, and anyone with limits on energy and time, we must make room for each of us to come as we are.

let go of judgment // welcome grace

I believe part of the reason we judge one another so harshly is because we are terrified of being judged ourselves.

Within certain progressive communities, judging one another on- and offline has become as reflexive as breathing. It is time to let go of this collective habit.

“Sometimes people who are scared that they aren’t enough become convinced that they can only be big if others are made small,” writes adrienne maree brown.

I see this dynamic in white conservatives who cling to power because they believe it makes them ‘big.’

On a different scale, I also see it in the way progressives have taken to judging and publicly chastising one another for social media and linguistic missteps. This particular kind of call-out serves to enforce a social hierarchy among us, with those performing the call-out getting a boost to their status, becoming ‘big,’ and those being called out facing all manner of social consequences including being ‘made small,’ sometimes to the point of complete ostracization.

I believe part of the reason we judge one another so harshly is because we are terrified of being judged ourselves. We have seen the consequences others have suffered for saying something ignorant (usually online, sometimes many years ago, and sometimes only misconstrued rather than actually betraying ignorance). Understandably, we fear facing the rejection they faced. So we do everything to bolster up our social capital, trying to turn into impenetrable images of perfect organizers and allies to hide the human underneath. Cancelling other people has become an expedient way to do this.

But we don’t build community together by each trying to be the best-spoken, most woke, or best-dressed person in the room. We build it by having the courage to show up as human beings who are willing to connect with each other from a shared space of unknowing. Community is the real springboard for change that serves the collective. To build it, I invite us to let go of judging ourselves and one another for not having the right words or ideas. I invite us to welcome grace and the benefit of the doubt instead.

let go of shame // welcome self-compassion

In contrast, self-compassion allows us to believe we are worthy of love while also holding space for imperfection.

“Building a sustainable social justice movement requires understanding how shame gets weaponized against us from above, within our communities, and within ourselves,” writes Frances Lee.

Marginalized people are burdened with enormous amounts of societal shame around our identities. As we internalize mainstream culture’s projections onto us, shame begins to shape our actions in profound ways that are often beyond our awareness.

Author and sex educator Clementine Morrigan writes, “Shame produces either defensiveness and denial, or compliance and submission. Neither of these lead us toward integrity and transformation.”

Shame activates our nervous system and creates barriers to building community. It triggers a fight or flight response, causing us to become rigid with fear or poised to attack and defend. This is often coupled with an overwhelming impulse to hide some imagined part of ourselves, too afraid to know ourselves, let alone be known by others. Poisoned by a need to atone for being ‘bad,’ the same actions that would draw us closer to others distort into a hall of mirrors for our own ego insecurities. We get stuck in our own woundedness, unavailable to meet one another in community.

In contrast, self-compassion allows us to believe we are worthy of love while also holding space for imperfection. When we let go of the good/bad binary and the shame it inspires, everything transforms. Instead of organizing to prove our goodness, we become free to do good as a natural consequence of our inner being. Nothing to prove, nothing to hide, nothing to atone for —from this space of freedom, creativity and love will flow.

 

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the consequences of a culture that forces people to ignore their limits are more apparent than ever. My hope is that as we look toward the next few years, we will bring a deepened value of rest, sustainability, and self-compassion to our communities. We need each other, and we need ourselves. It is our responsibility to create a culture of progressive organizing that encourages well-being and connection, because we know that mainstream culture will do the opposite.

There is so much work left to do, but it will still be there while we sleep. And having slept, having risen with the morning light, we will be all the more ready to meet the task at hand with courage, grace and love.

Sidra Morgan-Montoya

Sidra Morgan-Montoya

Sidra Morgan-Montoya (they/them) is a Chicanx multimedia artist working in performance, new media, and community-engaged arts facilitation. Their work considers identity in community, prodding the point at which our inner worlds and material reality touch. They enjoy napping, writing weird riot grrrl ballads, and swaddling tiny dogs in blankets. Their current project, an anti-capitalist satire, can be found at @lifeofpi.nky on Instagram. General creative updates at @selfietheorist.

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