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2017 Eastern Washington Legislative Conference - Sounding Board

Lutheran bishop explores need for self care for activists, advocates to persevere 

Bishop Martin Wells

In closing reflections for the Jan. 28 Eastern Washington Legislative Conference, Lutheran Bishop Martin Wells quoted from and commented on lawyer, feminist, photographer and blogger Mirah Curzer, writing on  “How to #StayOutraged without losing your mind.”

She recently offered self-care lessons for the resistance and Martin interspersed his own support for those engaged in the work of addressing human need.

Since the election, many people not previously involved in activism have jumped in with both feet, he said. The ACLU and Planned Parenthood have been inundated with donations, mostly from first-time givers.

Martin, who is bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Eastern Washington Idaho Synod, said the election was a wake-up call for many who are “joining in an outpouring of support and enthusiasm for action.”

Mirah said it won’t be easy given the “ferocious multi-front attack on the progressive agenda” and watching “institutions we care about and depend on be destroyed.” 

It will be emotionally exhausting and traumatic for those dedicated “to protecting the vulnerable and preserving democracy,” she said,  because many are not ready to be in resistance and the ranks will thin out with time unless care is taken.

Martin told attendees that organizers and activists need strategies to stay sane and not burn out during long struggles.

When Mirah wakes up and checks her phone, she said, a cloud of sadness and anxiety settles over her. So when it’s too much, she advises unplugging and stop reading the news for a week, day or even an hour. To avoid being overwhelmed and adapting to the outrage, she encouraged people to watch a movie, play with a dog or go to yoga.

According to family systems theory, Martin said living things need a degree of separateness from one another to thrive.  They need to separate the sympathy of walking beside someone from the empathy of entering into someone’s skin, which is unhealthy.

“We need to take a break and seek balance through separation,” he said. “Those with spiritual motivation, need to pay attention to our spiritual formation and our differentiation as a way to stay whole when in contact with those who need our help.  We risk coming apart by empathy, instead of the more helpful ‘walking alongside’ that will keep us intact.

“What does your tradition offer you in terms of forms of prayer?  Do you have a spiritual director?  Mirah suggests a therapist,” said Martin, reminding the group that St. Gertrude Monastery three hours south of Spokane has wonderful guest quarters. “Who is sitting beside you today that you can ask for help or offer help, when these days get too difficult?

“What is the shape of your soul these days and how will you attend to your soul as preparation for the difficult work ahead?” he asked.

The risk, he said, is adapting to “the horrible realities we face or fleeing.”

Mirah said: “People can get used to anything.  If you don’t take steps to prevent it, you will get used to the new reality.  You will stop being shocked by the latest scandal or horrified by the latest attack on civil rights.  Adapting to a new normal is the worst thing that could happen, because this is not normal.  Democracies fall when their people stop resisting.”

Martin said it’s important to stay engaged rather than adapting.

“This will not make you a bad activist or a weak person. You will do more good if you make time for other conversations and non-political activities. It’s like taking a vacation from your job, which research shows dramatically boosts productivity. Take a long break, then come back refreshed and ready to work,” Martin said.  “Not every job has to be done by you.”

Another suggestion is to focus energy on one or two issues, not show up to every march or donate to every cause. People will work on different issues.  If many people focus on many issues, important issues are covered.

Martin said, “Here we can turn to the beautiful reality of the Body of Christ,” which calls us, as Sr. Joan Chittester says, to be leaders “at the point of our giftedness” and followers “at the point of another’s giftedness.”

He calls people to be aware of their gifts and to turn to others who have other gifts.

Mirah suggests making activism fun, have a contest with friends to call representatives or go out with friends after volunteering.

She believes humor has a role, too.

As Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals, “If you’re not enjoying yourself, you’re doing it wrong.”

Mirah calls for basic self-care—therapy, physical and dental checkups, sleeping enough, exercising, being with friends, taking me-time, eating well and going outside.

“As people of faith, we can go a step further,” said Martin, referring to the story in Luke 18 of the persistent widow who wears down the judge to grant her justice.  He also suggests spending a day in Olympia with Paul Benz, director of the Faith Action Network and remembering the Jesuit theology of “being contemplatives in action.”

Out of his Lutheran tradition, Martin adds a theology of the cross, not in terms of someone suffering having “a cross to bear,” but being aware that “whatever suffering we have is suffering we can bear in confidence that God is with us.”

Jesus faced the cross, because he chose to face it, Martin said.  It was not like a sickness that strikes without explanation or a continuing difficulty, accident or catastrophe. Paraphrasing John Howard Yoder, he said, “Jesus’ cross was the price to pay for being the kind of person he was in the kind of world he was in, representing a new way of life in a world that did not want a new way of life,” he said.

Martin said Jesus calls his followers “to announce with him, a kingdom that is foreign” but “breaks in every time someone loves someone who is unlovable and who lays down a penultimate goal for the ultimate reality of the new kingdom.”

He is at the Lutheran Synod Office in Spokane at 838-9871.

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