10/08/2015 10:14 am ET Updated Oct 08, 2016

Let's End Burnout in the Movement

Until we are able to love and take care of ourselves, we cannot be of much help to others.
-- Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Buddhist Minister and Peace Activist

In the movement for social justice, a common thread frequently runs throughout our work. It's a kind of martyr's code that measures a person's commitment to justice by the willingness to sacrifice personal time, health and relationships. People who work for change often work on organizing campaigns with short timelines, with little resources, moving on all pistons at a grueling 24-7 pace. This extreme pace can consume the important things in life that contribute to a person's personal well-being.

In the course of my over 30 years working for social change, I often lost touch with myself and my work-life balance. Work took control of my life. Everything that contributed to my well-being became secondary to the work. I caught myself believing that my physical and mental exhaustion were indicative of my commitment to the work for justice, and that sacrificing my health for the sake of helping others was a badge of honor. The result was a series of periodic episodes of burnout where I lost physical and mental capacity to continue the work. This stage led to an empty feeling where the things I was working towards began to lose complete meaning. My most recent burnout culminated in doctors diagnosing me with Type 2 Diabetes. I realized that I needed to change my habits for the sake of my health and well-being.

During a period of intense self-reflection and meditation, I reached deep into my spiritual faith and connected with the teachings of St. Francis to guide me. The outcome of this period of burnout and reflection was my book, Living Peace: Connecting Your Spirituality with Your Work for Justice, which I published in both English and Spanish.

In 2014, Pope Francis condemned the "economy of exclusion," and called for "worldwide ethical mobilization" with the poor. Later, during a January 2015 meeting with youth in the Philippines, the Pope said: "Real love is about loving and letting yourself be loved. It's harder to let yourself be loved than to love." During recent his visit to the chamber in Congress in Washington D.C. and Ground Zero in New York City, Pope Francis mentioned the Golden Rule and the need for self-care, understanding, and compassion in human relationships. It is the nexus between these messages of economic justice and taking care of yourself that is at the heart of Living Peace.

Change makers and others working for justice must embrace a "radical solidarity" that encompasses a deepening self-care and community care to build a healthy movement for change. They need to be able to advocate for themselves when the symptoms of burnout and stress begin to overwhelm them. Change makers must take the courageous step forward to dismantle the "martyr syndrome" that is so entrenched in the work for justice. There are many ways to make healthy activism a reality. We can integrate healthy diets and exercise into our daily work. We create spaces within our workplaces for reflection, check-ins and talking circles to address burnout. We can connect with our spiritual faith or mindfulness practice to guide us towards a balance of self-care and healthy work practices.

The major economic and political challenges that change makers face today create opportunities. We can make the struggle for justice compassionate, fulfilling, caring, and healthier for all of us. Of course it takes courage to radically change direction towards a more sustainable and healthy movement for justice. But change makers owe nothing less to the millions of community members impacted by the economic injustices they fight for every day. If we can truly support one another and open our hearts, we can connect and create a radical solidarity.