Healing the Work: Finding a New Fuel for the Fire
Often, when considering social movements, the prevailing sentiment is one of anger. We envision protesters demanding justice and yearning for a better world. However, as numerous organizations grapple with burnout, I find myself reflecting on the nature of this fire. The furious torches that drive us forward are not sustainable, whether we hold them or they are thrust upon us.
Within an increasingly divided nation, injustice has long been a constant companion for people in the United States. Whether it manifests as economic disparities, gender inequality, interpersonal conflicts, or other forms, the perception of injustice breeds negative emotions. These emotions seek outlets, and depending on the context, they can manifest as both verbal and physical violence. Yet, they can also be channeled into constructive action.
Those who have experienced injustice, either personally or as part of a larger identity group, often gravitate towards social justice organizations. However, in these organizations, the focus rarely addresses the underlying emotions. Instead, we are encouraged to channel those feelings into long hours of relentless work, which often leads to burnout. Unfortunately, this perpetuates and activates the trauma experienced by individuals within these organizations—the same feeling of injustice. We have been taught that sharing and reinforcing these narratives can inspire both ourselves and others.
However, when organizations construct structures, movements, and norms, they often strive for standardization. By building armies, cults, or other groups that thrive on uniformity, they may achieve efficiency, but they fail to address the individuals themselves. Social justice spaces frequently prioritize the belief that being "critical" is essential to accomplishing the work. Yet, excessive criticism can leave individuals feeling powerless. Instead, the work itself should serve as a source of healing. As Bell Hooks wisely stated, "Rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion."
However, true communion requires intimate exchanges that many groups do not permit. These exchanges are often overlooked or pushed aside. Even when rest is valued, it is typically presented as a strategic necessity rather than a universal principle for all individuals. So, what occurs then? These suppressed emotions bubble to the surface, resulting in internal conflicts that not only impede organizational progress but also foster distrust among staff members. Those at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy, who tend to be the most marginalized, are affected the most. Consequently, upper management begins to professionalize the work, perpetuating a continuous cycle of weaponizing management and creating toxic work environments that remain in a state of perpetual alert.
This line of thought briefly brought atoms to mind. When negatively charged atoms are in proximity, they repel each other, causing them to disperse further apart. This process mirrors how trauma can fragment an organization. Moreover, an abundance of negatively charged atoms, or ions, generates electric fields that influence other particles. Similarly, when we find ourselves surrounded by individuals who have not addressed their own trauma, and that trauma is consistently re-triggered, an environment emerges that perpetuates the repulsion of one another.
What if healing and personal growth were integral components of every movement and social justice group? This transformation requires a profound shift. While negative emotions like shame, fear, and anger possess immense power, it is Rumi who reminds us that "Love is the bridge between you and everything." Love, too, burns passionately, even more so than hate. As we gradually dismantle the harm imposed upon us by the current social reality—the damage it inflicts on our sense of self-worth and our entitlement to exist—we begin to radiate love.
When we fail to do so, we emanate hate, fear, and anger instead. The illusion of this reality seeps into our consciousness, shaping how we interact with others. Our egos persistently shield themselves by belittling others, including those we aim to change while addressing the very systems that have caused our inner turmoil. The solution lies in acknowledging the pervasive influence of social reality, which continues to dictate winners and losers in our society, while simultaneously fostering healing through building relationships based on love. If we can accomplish this with our coworkers, love can eventually become the bridge that connects us all.