Illustration by Kim Ryu
By Kelly Hayes
Nov 4, 2016
I’ve noticed lately that a lot of allies and accomplices I talk to about NoDAPL and other struggles will name what they are trying to contribute to the cause, and then promptly apologize that they can’t do more. Often, the apologies seem perfunctory, or even insincere, but sometimes, they seem quite heartfelt. Personally, I deal with enough ideological tourists and movement loitering to feel a little sad when good people are doing good things, and feeling shitty about themselves anyway.
Maybe they don’t realize how many people applaud themselves for “standing on the right side of history,” as though reading an article or a book, and figuring out where to “stand,” is how one affects the course of history.
Or perhaps they just don’t know how to appreciate themselves — or have even been taught not to.
So I just want to say to everyone — whether you see yourself as an ally, accomplice or frontline struggler:
If you are really doing all that you can, you have nothing to apologize for.
Because if you are really and truly doing all that you can, you’re actually setting a pretty high standard for the rest of us.
And if you are really and truly doing all that you can, you should appreciate that about yourself, and allow yourself to be appreciated by others. Because as simple as it may sound, it’s often hard for us to internalize the fact that, on the scale of what we can all contribute, all you can is actually everything.
If you’re accustomed to selling yourself short, that may seem a little grandiose, so let’s vision this through for a moment:
Can you imagine how much closer to free we could get if everyone really did all that they could — within their own capacity, without martyring themselves in a heap of burnout?
What would it look like?
What could we build?
I think some of us have seen snapshots of what that could look like, in moments of consuming, fast-paced community collaboration, where we had to take care of each other to sustain community, and the work. But those breakneck sprints of action and inspiration, and the community-care triage that they necessitate, are not a model for day-to-day living. Because that intensity burns out. A broad, sustainable vision — and a simple one really — of community where everyone who claims to care passionately about a thing simply does all they can, and does their best… that’s obviously a dream that’s still under construction.
When we think about what obstacles impede that dream, we might first think of the internal failings of individuals: apathy, selfishness, etc. But what informs these tendencies? Is it possible that we are taught that some contributions are too small to matter, and that some are so great that they’ll make all the difference? Are we caught in a mythology where we are deemed either heroic or insignificant?
The idea that heroic individuals somehow marshal their talents, and resources (hello, Batman), to liberate the masses has, to put it mildly, an oppressive functionality. If internalized, it has the potential to shorten our social and political reach, due to our own self obsession. In movement building, we learn that heroic communities, rather than heroic individuals, propel our freedom dreams. Such communities are made up of people of all capacities, who bravely and lovingly do all they can.
Respecting our differing capacities is part of taking care of each other, and personally, I want to live in world where we honor each other’s contributions, celebrate one another, and love and care for each other.
So the bottom line here is: Be glad to acknowledge that you do all you can.
Let’s not teach others, who might take an interest in movement work, that feelings of insufficiency and guilt are the inevitable consequences of those efforts. We can be humble without erasing or diminishing ourselves. We can tell people what it means to us to do what we can, and we can discuss the different shapes that can take — and how fulfilling it can be.
If you’re reading this and thing to yourself, “Well, I really could do a lot more,” you could be right. I don’t know your story, or who depends on you, what your health is like or what resources you have to give. But if you think you have more to offer, don’t approach those efforts from a place of guilt — because as you may have noticed, the guilt of the privileged has never gotten anyone free.
So take joy in sharing your efforts and ideas with others. Celebrate what it means to be a resistor acting in defense of your community, or acting in solidarity with others. And if you’re a white accomplice, appreciate what it means to be a full-fledged traitor to white supremacy. Because that’s a beautiful thing and worth smiling about.
I’m not saying we should gloss over the messes we make and wade through in our organizing spaces. As communities, we need to be real about the rough places movement work can go — especially when discussing the structural oppressions we replicate in our own spaces. But we also need to feel right about the things we deserve to feel right about, and to remind each other of that.
If your goal is to be enough to put right everything that’s wrong, you will never be enough. But if your goal is to build a culture and a community that upends its oppressions, then the best you’ve got — the best that a whole lot of us have got — is exactly what it’s going to take.
It’s easy to tell people not to burn out, but I think it sometimes helps to think of movements as larger forces of nature — as constellations of actions, movements, stories and freedom fighters. There are all kinds of action-takers who show us what the pursuit of freedom looks like.
So just do your best today, and do it again tomorrow, and feel right about that. Because together, we will get there.