When I was in college, I was depressed. Maybe you might be able to relate with this. I would go to class, and do everything in my power to let the time pass by quicker: doodle, day-dream, zone-out. After class, I would go to the dining commons and eat as much unhealthy food as possible in order to numb myself, most of the time to the point where I would be in massive amounts of pain. Then, I would go back to my dorm room and watch hours and hours and hours and hours of Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, and torrents. The purpose of this was to make my body physically tired enough to go back to sleep, which was my favorite thing. I hated waking up because that meant I had to zone out and go through this process all over again, day after day, week after week, month after month; I hated that existing meant having to put in the effort of struggling to go through time. Some days I fantasized about death.
Millions of people live this way — waking up, going to unfulfilling jobs, coming back home to eat an unhealthy dinner, then numbing themselves with television (or drugs, or unhealthy relationships, etc.) in order to cope just enough to keep existing on and then to fall back asleep. Millions of people are living this way: in extreme coping. In my experience, it is not living at all; it is a living form of death.
Then one day — in my numb, apathetic state — I decided to join a protest against rising tuition costs at the University of California. Those who know me well know what happened next: we got maced by a University police officer, videos of that incident went hyper-viral online, and I started engaging in Leftist activism/organizing (which five years later is my more-than-full-time job).
It’s a nice-sounding narrative for sure — “young kid goes to college, finds meaning for life through traumatizing incident, and the rest is history” — but if I’m being completely sincere, I didn’t choose to sit down in front of that police officer out of a sense of justice, or defiance, or bravery. At least not mostly. Mostly, I was at such a low-point in my mental health that I instinctively knew that the idea of being potentially traumatized by the police might make me be able to feel… something. Anything.
Hell, it did. Woke me up right out of pure apathy, into a sense of extreme traumatized rage. Which — and this is weird to say, but it’s true… it actually was better. I way, way, way preferred the extreme traumatized rage to the nothingness. For the first time in years, I felt like I was alive. And it was in the pursuit of that sense of aliveness that eventually led me to drop out of college to pursue professional organizing as a career.
I spent the next couple of years addicted to Left-wing organizing, for it was the only thing that allowed me to feel anything. I’ve written extensively about the dangers of using Left-wing organizing to bolster one’s own self-worth, so I won’t get into that much here. Suffice to say, though, that using external things like organizing to feel whole on the inside necessarily creates a co-dependent relationship with those external things, and there will never, ever, ever be enough of those external things to fill the hole in your heart. You got to find happiness, self-worth, etc., from the inside. That doesn’t mean “don’t do organizing.” Rather, it means — if you can get there — “try to do organizing not out of desperation, but out of inspiration as much as you are capable.”
Being that the first three and a half years of my organizing career were spent in a state of compulsive desperation, though — and also that my five-year anniversary as a professional organizer was last week — I’ve been thinking a lot about where I started, what I’ve been through, and where I’m at now.
I keep arriving at the same conclusion: that 18-year-old me would have thought 24-year-old me was a complete, total career sell-out.
18-year-old me?: I unironically said stuff like, “We gotta burn down the government and instate pure anarchy.” I may or may not have dressed in all black and thrown bricks through bank windows during mass protests. During smaller protests, I got arrested at least 4 or 5 times — although honestly, it’s hard to keep track.
Nowadays: I have a middle-class job at a labor union. I have many friends outside of “the Movement.” I have a car, a nice apartment, and a roommate. I am — by any suburban mom’s standards — a “nice young man,” a nice young man who hasn’t felt existential rage for a very long time.
I prefer my existence now; by all measures, I can say that I’ve finally found happiness.
But there are the nagging concerns and paradoxes:
* My politics — in practice — are nowhere as pure as they once were. I’ve seen and done things that 18-year-old me would not be proud of — ashamed of, even — as they were not 100% anti-oppressive and liberatory.
* My politics — in practice — are way, way more practical than they once were. In the mainstream, I’ve helped improve the life standards for thousands of people; as a radical, I’ve helped *a few* of my friends through some really dark emotional times. Actually, now that I think about it, I’ve actually been able to do *more* effective deep-emotional work with worker-leaders in my mainstream job too, since that now that I’m coming from a non-coping, “thriving” state, it has allowed me a greater emotional capacity to give more to the leaders who need it. By all accounts, I am doing more good for the world nowadays.
* It is clear to me, in the five years I’ve been doing the Work, that my friends who only engage in radical politics are, by and large, still suffering moreso from mental health issues, whereas my friends who also engage in mainstream work suffer less so. And I’m not sure if there exists causation, and if so, what direction that causation goes, or what the other factors/filters/variables are that exist.
* Ethically, it is not clear to me if I *should* even value my existential happiness so high, although doing so is clearly the easiest and most immediate answer to the question that is life.
* By taking a mainstream organizing job, I have way, way less time for radical politics in my life. The analysis that “the mainstream” takes radicals, normalizes them, and thereby takes energy away from radical movements actually totally does hold some merit, although I’m not sure to what degree.
Ultimately, though, I’ve become OK with all this — at total ease — with my process and my life’s journey. It is what it is, and I am totally open to that my perception of all this may change later.
Of course, 18-year-old Ian would say I’m rationalizing my life and making excuses.
Which is valid. The only escape from the paradoxes, I think, is accepting that there may or may not be answers, but in an act of revolt, to continue forward, engaged in the struggle, moving forward anyway.
At least that’s my view. Thank you for reading. I appreciate you.