July 5th, 2018
These are frightening times for Americans who value things like human rights and the rule of law. Much that is going on in the news is particularly disturbing to the disability community, including Autistic people. Many of us, especially those who have advocacy experience from the Neurodiversity Movement, want to see what we can do to help. Most of us need to practice good self-care to feel our best in a climate which feels increasingly threatening to most members of minority groups.* Many of us feel both impulses strongly and simultaneously, but activism or advocacy and self-care aren’t the same thing. Often, a given course of action will serve only one of those important ends. It is important to evaluate which one wants to do in a given moment and make decisions that will accomplish the goal in question.
A lot of things that accomplish important practical goals, solving a problem, protecting vulnerable people, changing policy, don’t feel especially good. A lot of things that are spiritually refreshing or important to the continuation of daily life, emotional expression, making sure the bills are paid, picking up a medication refill, speaking out to like-minded people, car maintenance or topping off a bus pass, rest, exercise, and snark, are not necessarily effective tactics for making change. Both sets of actions are important, but it is important to distinguish them. The way to start is to be intentional.
Make a decision about whether self-care or change-making is going to happen at this moment. You do no owe other people an explanation of your choice. Resist any instinct to feel guilty as best you can. Whichever you are not going to do now can be done later, tomorrow, or next week. Put it on the calendar to be sure it actually happens. If you have chosen self-care, be sure the activity you are contemplating will actually be helpful for you in that regard. Today may be a day for going to work so that the water bill gets paid rather than protesting. Today may be a day for going to the movies or having dinner with friends rather than jumping on the latest hashtag about the latest appalling current event. The key is to decline to participate in anything that will not contribute to your welfare or keep your life on track.
If the decision you are making for the moment is taking on the problems of the world, the analysis is entirely different. Look at the specific things you will do. Think about them, not just how they will feel but what they will accomplish. If you can’t see how the actions you are being asked to take address the problem in question, ask more questions. If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, you have come across a plan which hasn’t been well-designed and fully thought-through. It isn’t a good use of your problem-solving time even if it feels good. Unless you want to switch over to self-care for the moment, and the course of action would feel nourishing enough to count as self-care, find some other way to address the problem.
Both self-care and addressing problems of public concern are very important, especially now. We will not get through this challenging period without engaging in a significant amount of both. However, self-care and advocacy do not always go together and can be somewhat incompatible depending on the context. We can always have generous helpings of both, but we can’t always have both at the same time. For that reason, it is important to be thoughtful about which one a given course of action will accomplish. If we can be intentional about working some of both into our busy schedules, and know what we plan to do when, we will live as well and protect as many people as possible in these challenging times.
*I mean self-care in the sense of keeping one’s own life together, living as part of one or more communities, fulfilling the responsibilities of one’s personal life, and maintaining one’s own well-being rather than anything luxurious or fun.