The work we do requires more of us. Not just running faster, or even running smarter, but the ability to go deeper.
True social change work, work through which we apply ourselves fully in service of others, requires us to show up differently. It requires us to do deep work on our selves – the work of self-reflection that leads to self-knowledge that ultimately results in a progressively deeper exploration of purpose.
This exploration is not a solitary activity. For real understanding of self to emerge, we must conduct this exploration in partnership with others – so we can better understand them, and the world as they see it, and, through these conversations and relationships, more clearly see and understand our selves in relation to them and to their world.
All of this work, this emotional labor, requires us to go deep to the places where we unearth empathy, connection, meaning, values, loyalties and losses. This is the guts of the work we aim to do.
Our starting point is our willingness to take emotional risks: the risk of being authentic, the risk of standing up for what we believe in, the risk of speaking truth to power, the risk of admitting our own shortfalls and limitations, the risk of being courageous, the risk of being brave, the risk of persevering, and the risk of being humble. Ultimately, these all add up to choosing to take the risk of caring deeply about something, of putting ourselves on the line for that thing, and of knowing that we might or might not succeed in achieving a thing that is truly important.
It can be daunting to see what this work requires of us, to contemplate the limbs we have to be willing to walk out on. But it is intuitively clear why we must do it: how can we change the systems that preserve the status quo if we don’t fully understand them, and ourselves?
Yet, even as we muster our courage, there is an important piece of work that often remains invisible to us. This is the work we will need to do to sustain our practice of emotional labor: the work of self-restoration; the work of sharpening, cleaning and oiling the blade, time and time again, so that we can wake up again tomorrow and cut down the next tree.
This is a discipline like any other, the discipline of self-restoration.
For each person this discipline will look different. It might be sleep. It might be meals with friends. It might be regular conversations with someone who has known us for a lifetime. It could be quiet talks with a loved one. It might be journaling, or walking, or sitting. It might be exercise, or mediation, or yoga. But it is something regular, a consistent practice that keeps us grounded, one that refills our tank so that we have the strength to go out the next day.
Burnout in the social change world is common, and while this partly occurs because the road is both long and hard, another cause is that we don’t prepare ourselves for the emotional labor this work will require of us, and, once we come across it, we don’t build in the disciplines that will allow us to consistently reground, reset, and reignite the flame inside of us.
The discipline of waking up when the alarm sounds for our morning run.
The discipline of sitting on a meditation cushion and not in front of the TV.
The discipline of shutting the computer off and having dinner at home with your family.
The discipline of reading some poetry alone before bed, and not your twitter feed.
This discipline of a regular practice of expressing gratitude.
The discipline of good sleep hygiene.
The discipline of prayer, of reflection, of reconnecting with our spiritual selves.
The thing about disciplines is that they are not always fun, or easy, or immediately gratifying. Yet when we make space for them, when we ritualize them and build them into the fabric of our lives, the payoff is a practice that restores our capacity to do the brave, hard, meaningful work we all aim to do.