On Selfish Selflessness
Or the Importance of Understanding One’s Motivation
As an activist, it is all too easy to feel like your goals are behind insurmountable obstacles leering down at you like a mountain face littered with the remains of failed attempts to scale it. Changing the world sometimes seems a sheer impossibility, even when you remember to keep splitting tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks. To keep a consistent, strong motivation, it is essential to understand where it stems from. In organizer circles, we often speak of a person’s self-interest, i.e., the thing driving them forward and their own stake in the change they want to enact. A true understanding of self-interest goes beyond what someone wants to do to why they want to do it — and what’s in it for them. The last part might sound selfish, as we are often taught, implicitly or explicitly, to consider activism an inherently altruistic devotion to others, but that is a very one-eyed way of looking at it. Take, for example, a straight person active in a pro-LGBT organization: While they personally might not get concrete, direct benefits from legislation they seek to pass or the minds they try to change, their self-interest might lie in the satisfaction of doing good, working towards a world that is kinder to their nonheteronormative friends or family, or a social atmosphere more open and accepting to themselves as well. Solidarity is powerful, and it is only reinforced and strengthened by a knowledge of where it stems from.
By explicitly recognizing the deeply personal links between our beliefs and our stories, we can bring a more conscious, more active element into our work. It is easier to keep going when you are genuinely aware of why you want to keep going in more detail than “it’s the right thing to do.” (That being said, another thing to be aware of is the fact that we all need a break sometimes; just pushing forward with bloodshot eyes is not always the way to go.) Personally, I would thrive better in a world where my personal well-being wasn’t dependent on the whims of employers and capital, where emotions and mental states could be talked about more openly — meaning that the public perception of mental illness wouldn’t just be a binary of “fake” or “crazy” — and where my friends’ standard of living didn’t depend on their being born in a certain country. I know that many others would benefit from this as well, meaning that my self-interest overlaps with others; it therefore makes sense for us to work together to effect this new and improved world.
The way to discover self-interest, then, is a mixture of introspection and conversation, with the latter fueling the former. I realized my various horses in the race — and I remind myself of them — through talks with friends and fellow activists, as while internal monologues are all well and good, it is nigh impossible to really dig deep and explore the subconscious without engaging someone on the outside, someone with fresh eyes and ears. As a hefty bonus, these heart-to-hearts give us an outlet for deep-seated feelings, sentiments, and frustrations, as well as an (all too rare) chance to feel and see mutual vulnerability and openness. In an activist context, these one-to-ones are a powerful tool to strengthen the relationships needed for effective organizing; we do not all have to be the best of friends, but we do have to be able to trust each other, and it’s hard to trust someone you don’t know.
Concretely, then, I suggest the following (and this is a reminder to myself as much as anyone reading this): Reach out to your fellow activists and tell them that you want to explore your (and their) self-interest with a conversational deep-dive into the psyche; talk to your yet-to-be-galvanized friends and family members and find out what makes them tick to encourage them to action; and rest when necessary — breaks are very much preferable to breakdowns.