Dealing with social justice fatigue: how applying the principle of Ahimsa can help.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”- Gandhi.
It is both the blessing and the curse of those who work towards social justice to be engaged in a variety of confrontational settings. The brave souls who fought to abolish the horrific act of slavery were undoubtedly engaged in a thoroughly thankless task, toiling to bring an end to the tragedy that they viewed, correctly, as a crime against humanity. Those who fought for the rights of women to be considered as equals to men were likewise asked to work incredibly hard to turn the tide of public opinion in favor of certain norms that brought both genders up to the same level of worthiness, and that fight continues to this day, albeit in a different form. And there are those who have fought alongside our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, being diligent in their efforts to create a world in which we could show kindness, compassion, and love for all people, irrespective of their orientation.
These individuals who have rallied about these various social justice causes often go unrecognized in their efforts; their struggles are not always applauded, and in many cases, they fight against the primary perceptions of the world, and those who fight against the “isms” in our history (racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, ageism, along with homophobia) must often do their vital work with a certain disconnect in their hearts, in order to simply continue onwards. For to acknowledge the weight of the matters at hand, to come to terms with the magnitude of the battle before them, can at times feel as if it is too much to bear.
Throughout the course of human history, we have slowly begun to see the fruit of these labors. That being said, the progress that many social justice advocates has made is admirable, although in many cases we still have a long way to go in creating the world that we want to see, a world that we can be proud to leave behind to future generations.
In light of these social justice issues, one of the more recent struggles that has come to light is the fight against species-ism, which is the belief that one species in superior to another in some significant capacity. The notion that it is morally reprehensible to cause unnecessary harm to sentient, and defenseless, beings, is slowly beginning to take root in the hearts of many individuals across the globe. Having worked in this arena for only a few short years, I have been immensely privileged to watch people open their hearts to their deepest, most true values and principles of kindness, compassion, and mercy towards the most vulnerable beings that share this incredible planet with us.
While there is remarkable progress being made on a daily basis by some of the most incredible activists all around the globe, we do occasionally find ourselves in situations with individuals who simply refuse to have intelligent, thoughtful, and rational conversations about some of the key issues surrounding a compassionate lifestyle, and they rely instead on their own assumptions to guide their opinions, choosing to ignore a reality of their own making. The conversations an animal activist might have with these individuals can so often be frustrating, agonizing, and exhausting for both parties involved, and at times can feel as if little progress in being made. If you’re anything like myself, you tend to allow these interactions to eat away at you, letting yourself obsessively focus on what could have been said more appropriately, or perhaps working to identify their particular cognitive dissonance. It can be overwhelming, to say in the least.
In these situations, as in many others, it can be an invaluable help for us to apply the principle of Ahimsa. The term itself is Sanskrit in origin, and is in fact a primary tenet of several major Eastern religions. One certainly does not have to be a practitioner these faith-systems to gain deep peace and insight from this principle of Ahimsa, as it should be considered a very universal concept in both definition and application. Upon brief examination, we learn that Ahimsa in the principle of non-violence, based on the idea that when violence is committed against another being (regardless of species), that violent act will return to harm you in some form or fashion. We can explore this idea in terms of how it relates to our animal activism below:
1. Our conversations with those who appear defensive or antagonistic must be filled with compassion and kindness.
When we engage in conversation with someone who is aggressive or stubborn concerning veganism, our natural reaction ( at least internally) is to think that they are a “bad” person who might never change. We may allow ourselves to believe that they’re impossible to help, and to judge them for this misguided choices. But if we allow these thoughts to creep into our consciousness, are we not also harming ourselves emotionally by creating an arena of negative energy to dominate our mind? No good can come of this. Darkness does not beget light.
2. As activists, we must never forget that everyone contains the seeds of compassion, and our harvest must be gentle.
As vegans, we are often taken with the belief that we are somehow different, or special, in regards to how we arrived at our compassionate lifestyles. When we allow ourselves to belief this, we create a sense of refined ego, and pride can creep in, which would cause a harm either within us, and quite often how we would externalize this pride is very harmful, running contrary to Ahimsa. The overwhelming majority of us were not born as vegans; rather, we saw the truth later in life and our hearts were opened to the compassion and kindness we had in us all along. We must never, ever forget that those around us are on a journey that is beautifully unique to them, and we must be gentle and kind in helping them to empower themselves to look deep into their own spirit and find the mercy that was inside of them all along. Some vegans look as this principle as “excusing” the immoral actions of omnivores; I would never argue that we do such a thing. Rather, we must present the truth as we would want it presented to us: in a manner that is loving, respectful, and considerate.
3. We must know when its healthy to walk away.
Activists: we are nothing if not (seemingly) tireless. In our fight for the defenseless, in our being the voice for the voiceless, we can often be extremely tenacious in our pursuit of shining the light into the darkness, particularly in situations where we find ourselves up against someone who is violently opposed to the truth. We often relish the “hard cases”, finding an enjoyment is attempting to show these individuals the truth they so often desperately wish to avoid, for their own particular set of reasons. The animals, people, and the environment desperately need us to continue practicing non-violent, creative, vegan education, but if we harbor bitterness, anger, and self-righteousness in our hearts and minds, we let down not only those who need us most, but we injure ourselves in deep and significant ways, violating the tenets of Ahimsa. We must allow ourselves to have moments where can lose ourselves in an encouraging conversations with a friend, a wonderful book, or a favorite television show. We must allow ourselves to take time out to heal, to recover, and to re-energize. In doing so, we can apply the elements of Ahimsa by causing no harm to ourselves, to others, and to the beings that share this life with us.
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