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Think Free to Live Free

The Raw Material of an Activist

Claire Wolfe

[Editor's Note: Doing Freedom! is pleased to help announce Claire Wolfe's new book, Think Free to Live Free: A Political Burnout's Guide to Life, Activism and Everything, and to publish this excerpt from it. Claire describes Think Free as a self-help manual for politically aware people of all stripes who want to live happier lives, as well as be more effective. The book, due in early May from Breakout Productions (P.O. Box 1643, Pt. Townsend, Washington 98394, 360-379-1965), comes in a large format with three dozen worksheets made for writing in, doodling on and sticking Post-It notes to. This excerpt is from chapter two of Think Free, which deals with analyzing our innate temperament, and beginning the process of deciding what we do or don't want to change in our lives. Enjoy, and check back for a link to buy the book when it's available!]

A guerrilla leader was once asked what he would do if his side actually won -- if his comrades took over the government of his country. He thought a minute, then responded, "Start fighting against the new regime."

For the Politically Passionate, that remark carries truth on several levels. First, it's a sure bet that any system will be corrupted -- and therefore worth opposing -- as soon as it's put into real-world action. People are imperfect and people in power are the worst of the lot. More important, for purposes of this book, the remark tells a truth about the nature of the speaker:

We who fight for what we believe are, first and foremost, fighters.

In our political lives we're not the kind to say, "Well, nothing's perfect; I can live with this much injustice and not get too excited about it." In our personal lives, we're just not great at laying back, enjoying a toke or a smoke or a drink and letting the world take care of itself.

There's always injustice and we always get excited about it.

We may eventually give up on a cause because we're tired or defeated or have won a partial victory (as women's rights advocates did for decades after winning the long battle for suffrage). We may move from one issue to another as priorities shift. But we are always poised to plunge into the fray.

Unfortunately, this means we're not only perpetually at odds with the world, but perpetually at odds with ourselves, as well. We say we want peace, but our hearts are at war. We say we want freedom, but our minds remain bound to the battle with those who would steal our liberties.

"Well, of course," we protest. "If we didn't fight for peace, the warriors would triumph. If we didn't fight perpetually to guard freedom, the tyrants would prevail."

True enough. But (as we'll keep seeing elsewhere in the book) it's a kind of surface truth that keeps us from probing more deeply into our own hearts. By pointing a finger at our undeniable and very real adversaries, we're able to avoid looking at some of the ways we -- by our nature or our acquired habits -- exacerbate our own frustrations, fears, angers, and ineffectiveness in this lifelong philosophical battle of ours. These attitudes and behaviors -- our attitudes and behaviors -- are usually a major contributor to our own burnout.

We have minimal control over the state of the world, however much we wish and work to make it otherwise. Even powerful characters like Gandhi, Patrick Henry, Abbie Hoffman or Eleanor Roosevelt have limited impact in the long run (and not always the impact they set out to have, either). We have a lot more control over our personal reactions to the world. It is the goal of this book to help make those reactions (and our subsequent actions) less stressful, more productive and less wasteful of energy.

It may be a gradual process. It certainly involves commitment and dedication to self-change. As my friend Tina Terry, activist and teacher, puts it:

X happens. It's a bad thing. You can't prevent it. But you have a smorgasbord of reactions ...okay, maybe a small salad bar of reactions can choose from in that and subsequent moments.

Each choice affects the next. By training yourself to respond in certain ways, you can modify your behavior so much over time that you actually modify your emotional reactions to feel less stress.

It's kind of a bonsai process. Bonsai trees are clipped and trained and heavily modified by the gardener. This is kind of a self-bonsai process.

Other analogies might be ballet training, or gymnastics, or karate. Think about how unnatural ballet is. The dancers turn out their feet, they make unnatural movements. When people begin training, they're clunky, they have to think very hard about everything. But when they finally reach unconscious competence, they've trained their bodies to be in tune with their minds.

We can train ourselves, over time, to be less stressed by all the catastrophic goings on in the world -- without numbing ourselves to injustice, without becoming callous, and without giving up or giving in. We can also get some quick results by eliminating from our lives some of the activities and conditions that cause our stress levels to go through the ceiling.

At all times, this process is in your own hands. No book author can "bonsai" you -- and this particular book author cringes at the very notion. Whatever you do (or don't do) will be through your own decision, your own self-knowledge and your own efforts.

"I yam what I yam and that's all what I yam"

Nevertheless, like everybody else, we activists are to some extent captives of our innate character, in thrall to our native temperaments. We have a certain raw material to work with. Just as you can't make supercomputers out of elephant dung, diamonds out of dandelion fluff or tofu out of beefsteak, there are certain things you can and can't make of yourself.

Obviously, we activists are all over the place in terms of personality, sex, sexual orientation, religious belief (or non-belief), economic status, tastes, styles of expression, etc., etc., etc. We're also (Does anybody really have to mention?) all over the place in viewpoints and goals. We drive each other crazy, and occasionally slaughter each other, over whether we are pro or anti-gun/drug/abortion/spending/military/prayer-in-schools/diversity/gay rights/government education/or the rights of dolphins, whales or huge, bloodsucking multi-national corporations.

But I'm willing to bet -- in fact, I know -- that beneath the issues and the stylistic differences, we are much more alike than different. And I'm not talking romantic stuff about us all being part of "the family of man" or "the oneness of Gaia." I'm talking about the temperamental drive that pushes unusual people like us to do what we do.

A "left wing" activist and a "right wing" activist, regardless of how much they might like to gut each other in a dark alley, have more in common with each other than they do with the booze-bellied dude lying over there in the hammock, listening to Garth Brooks.

What are some of our common characteristics? While not every single one of the following will apply to every reader, here's a picture of what I believe we share. (You might want to note those that apply to you as you read along.)

We're devoted to knowing the truth. This doesn't mean you never let a lie pass your lily lips. Some activists are, in fact, championship liars. But we all tend to want to blast away veils of official secrecy, to demand accounts and accountability from politicians, to launch the spin into outer space so we can get at the down-to-earth reality. We don't like people in power hiding things from us. We hate plots and cabals, closed-door meetings and old boy networks.

We find ethical significance all around us. We value morality, ethics, or proper action. It's true even of we who see ourselves as pretty nihilistic or unusually open-minded. We make value judgments in places where most people don't even bother to glance.

We want to make a difference. It's why we're here.

We see potential for positive change. For some of us, this means visionary thinking, utopian dreams or actions to alter the nature of society. For others, it may mean no more than having a hope of undoing devastation or evil. If we didn't believe positive change was possible, we'd be over there with Mr. Beer Gut, taking a nap.

We have a tendency toward self-sacrifice. This shows up in the very fact that we're here, getting involved instead of hanging back. Some would say that's not self-sacrifice at all: "I'm doing this to build the kind of world I want to live in," but as a practical matter, we tend to sacrifice money, time, pleasures, and peace of mind to do what we do. Occasionally we put our lives or well-being at risk for our ideals.

We have very strong egos. We have to, to believe we can make a difference. We must, to endure living in a world that frequently tells us we're wrong-headed goofball extremist incredibly annoying wing-nuts.

We are concerned with social systems. We direct our energies toward reforming, revolutionizing, replacing, or sabotaging institutions -- governments, societies, churches, businesses, and schools. Activists on the left may put the emphasis on social, while their compadres on the right may focus on systems. But as activists, even we libertarians (who see everything in terms of individual freedom) usually focus our political efforts on the institutions that can support -- or destroy -- what we most care about.

We have a strong work ethic. If not in our vocations or our home lives, at least in our activism.

We are empathetic. Unlike a certain snake-souled former president, many of us truly do feel others' pain -- be it flood victims in Bangladesh, beleaguered taxpayers, inner-city mothers, or the family of a child shot dead by DEA agents in a botched raid.

We value action, not just words.

We worry about society falling apart. Or man's inhumanity to man. Or moral decay. Or the destruction of nature. In other words, we tend to see sweeping danger (and sweeping ethical implications) beyond every individual cause or issue.

We want to be of service. For some, this may mean direct, recognized service to humanity. For others, it may simply mean knowing in our hearts that the world is a better place because we were here.

We are driven by principles. Though some of us may be very pragmatic in action, we're always aware of the values that underlie both our actions and our goals.

You and I may otherwise be so different we couldn't find a word to say to each other if we were thrown together in a crowded room. But I'm as certain as I can be that every reader of this book shares at least 10 of those 13 traits.

Why does all this matter?

It matters because you are the material you have to work with -- your temperament, character, body, personality, skills, values, inclinations, and limitations.

I'm a huge believer in the ability to create personal change. Still, if you are already beat from head-banging, you can save yourself some effort (and a lot of money on self-help books) by knowing and accepting the raw material that is you -- even some material you wish you didn't have.

For instance, if you tend to fall into periodic depressions and deep discouragement, it's likely that no book and no plan of life change (sans mood-altering drugs) is going to turn you into an ever-cheerful soul.

If you have workaholic tendencies, you might discover that no matter how much you wish for rest, you will invariably throw yourself into activity -- even if the activity you took up was play.

If you're a worrier, you're probably going to go right on worrying to some extent, no matter how many gurus you consult about the problem.

No book can promise to cure all your ills.

That said, however:

  • You can change all kinds of learned behaviors.
  • You can modify even your most inborn tendencies.
  • You can develop techniques for moderating any of your personal difficulties.
  • And of course you can change thousands of things about your life circumstances -- friends, job, activities, location -- to make your external life better fit your interior needs.

For instance, someone who falls easily into discouraged states can learn to avoid circumstances that knock her down, or can teach herself little mantras and methods for getting through the hard times. A workaholic ...well, that's usually cured by old age or early death. But you can also figure out what's compelling you to push so hard. Force yourself to take time out until it feels natural, practice meditation, or -- after considerable examination of conscience -- you can tell your critics to screw off, that you happen to like being a workaholic, you think everybody else is a lazy jerk, and if they don't approve of you they can hang out with someone else.

If you're a worrier, you may go on worrying; but you can learn to recognize it in yourself and say, "Oh, there I go again." It won't stop you from waking up at 3:00 a.m., filled with dread. But it might help you to go back to sleep and to go on with life. You can also use other coping techniques, from making lists of the things you need to tend to, to deep-breathing exercises.

It's often difficult to know -- until you've lived a long time -- what you can change in your life and what you can't. Or what you can change, but only at great cost.

I was once very inarticulate. I despaired of ever being able to sound intelligent in public. Each year I'd make a resolution: "Learn to be more articulate." Each year I'd be as fumble-tongued as ever. But finally, my own power of suggestion reached me and I discovered, to my surprise, that I could get up in front of just about anybody and say just about anything. (Some things I'd be better off not saying, unfortunately.) The first time I gave a three-minute speech opposing a government plan, I rehearsed it for five terrified days -- but I got the only standing ovation of the evening. Today no one knows I was ever so shy, but what they also don't know is that exercising this hard-learned skill by going to a party or having a conversation with strangers is still the most difficult thing I ever do. I'd rather eat spinach with ice cream on top. My fundamentally introverted nature rebels. But I can do it.

The long and short of it

  • A lot of our despair and burnout comes from within, even when we have plenty of good reason to blame our political opponents.
  • If you're burnt out, you need to change -- not only what you're doing, but how you're thinking about it.
  • We have the power to modify our reactions and to alter our habits and our activist activities.
  • Change is more likely to come from self-knowledge, self-training and time than from guru-style miracles. Nevertheless, plenty of techniques are available to help.
  • We have certain raw material to work with, and though we can accomplish all kinds of change, we can't alter our fundamental nature.
  • That said, we can use the raw material that is us to become more fulfilled individuals and more effective activists.


For more information about temperament types, see The Keirsey Temperament Sorter, a free, Web-based temperament inventory that builds on the famous Myers-Briggs typology.

(c) 2001


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