“Another Such Victory and I am Undone”Mar 30, 2022
By Aaron Goggans
"Another such victory and I am undone"- King Pyrrus of Epirus
According to Wikipedia, a pyrrhic victory, “is a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat. A Pyrrhic victory takes a heavy toll that negates any true sense of achievement or damages long-term progress.” It is a term that refers to the Pyrrhic War in the second century BCE.
I can think of no better way to describe how the constellation of forces seeking transformation in the “American” way of life that include economic, political and social democracy, commonly referred to as “the left”, came through the Trump administration. We won, in the sense that most, though by no means all of us, remained alive and out of jail. Trump was denied a second term and the overton window on solutions to the current problem swung to the left for a time (though we are seeing it open for the right as well). We avoided some of the worst possibilities of the Trump administration as much due to his own cowardice and disorganization as to our heroic sacrifices.
Yet, many of us are left with almost ungriefable wounds from the last four years. We won, we guess, but we lost so much in the fighting that we lack any true sense of achievement. We lost things in the fire that we were both unprepared to lose and didn’t notice while they burned. Some relationships faded away while others crashed and wounded us in the process. Even our bodies have been shaped by the trauma, racked with new pains and limitations that we may have already normalized as “just the way things are now.”
Our sense of achievement is also decreased by a society that seems determined to pretend that none of this is happening. Whether we are talking about the insurrection, pandemic, systemic racism or climate change, the culture of denial makes it impossible for us to take collective stock of the past two years. It is this violence of organized forgetting in public discourse—so essential to the U.S. experience—that leaves us feeling gaslit about losses we can barely acknowledge to ourselves.
It is a hard loss to talk about because most of our comrades are still in it and those who aren’t don’t understand. Our friends tell us to take a break, but for many of us, people would literally die if we stopped doing what we are doing. This is not hyperbole or catastrophizing, because for movement leaders engaged in mutual aid, public health, or security work the stakes are life and death. Of course, many of us fail to recognize that if we continue going at this pace, we will die.
The Unnamed Phenomenon
We are left with a new unspoken phenomenon. Something far beyond the horizon of burnout though encompassing it as well. It's a condition whose pathology cannot be individualized. No vacation, sabbatical, or new self-care regimen alone can fix it. Whole social networks are grappling with its fallout. It is starting to take a hold of our social movements as it warps our political perceptions. Our imaginations dim, our view narrows, and without the energy to offer grace to our comrades every disagreement becomes a major fracture.
Many parts of our movement are continuing to retreat from the very communities for which they fight. Some of this was inevitable with the pandemic as public meetings were nearly impossible. Yet, as the pandemic and its social, political, and physical aftermath continue, many organizations and organizers find themselves out of organic connection with front-line communities.
While on the ground organizing is still happening and recent unionization campaigns at Starbucks or Amazon as well as historic strikes should give us hope, there is still the reality of a generation of organizers who have been radicalized online at a time when canvassing and door knocking was impossible. Likewise, there is a generation of elders and veterans in the movement who we have lost to the pandemic.
Finally, there is a whole middle strata of organizers who are too affected by this illness of no name to actually adapt to the new conditions we find ourselves in. We do not believe it would be overstating it to say that the survival of the left as a community-based project is at stake.
Mass based online organizing has its usages. The mobilizations during the George Floyd protests had an important impact but it is community-based on-the-ground organizing that allowed for the sustained uprisings we saw in the aftermath. Cities across the country were able to turn nights of spontaneous rebellion into sustained uprisings that reshaped local terrains because of organizing through longer term communal relationships.
These are the very relationships that we are losing to death, the “unnamed” problem, as well as new organizing patterns based on online mobilization. We simply do not have the capacity as a movement to repeat the kind of turnout drives that helped secure Trump’s loss in 2020, let alone to organize beyond the elections to secure our communities against a growing and radicalizing grassroots facsist movement and deepening climate catastrophe.
Perhaps most importantly, many of us veteran organizers have left this new generation of young organizers without any values aligned infrastructure to use to keep themselves safe. There are many resources out there to support people from 16-25 following in our footsteps in disrupting the status quo, yet there is very little infrastructure for collectively metabolizing the toxins that arise in this work.
Many of our organizations were happy to use their photos and quotes in our fundraising campaigns yet have offered them no place of sanctuary from the backlash that we knew would come. These young activists are now stumbling through the same crises that we did, destined to repeat the same cycle of network wide burnout. In many ways, this article was written for them, to explain the things we wish someone had told us. We would like to offer a preliminary blue-print for healing.
The Problem: Unprocessed Pyrrhic Grief
As James Baldwin said, nothing is overcome that isn’t first faced. In order to face this problem with no name, it can be useful to name it. Therefore, we at the WildSeed Society have started calling it Unprocessed Pyrrhic grief. We choose the word grief because grieving is how humans naturally respond to loss. It is a praise for what is no longer there. As Martin Pretchel said:
Grief is praise of those we have lost. Our own souls, who have loved and are now heartbroken, would turn to stone and hate us if we did not show such praise when we lose whom we love. A non-fake grieving is how we praise the dead, by praising that which has left us feeling cold and left behind. By the event of our uncontrolled grief, wail, and rap, we are also simultaneously praising with all our hearts the life we have been awarded to live, the life that gave us the health and opportunity of having lived fully enough to love deep enough to feel the loss we now grieve. To not grieve is a violence to the Divine and our own hearts and especially to the dead. If we do not grieve what we miss, we are not praising what we love. We are not praising the life we have been given in order to love. If we do not praise whom we miss, we are ourselves in some way dead. So grief and praise make us alive.
Understanding this as unprocessed grief reminds us that there is a useful tangible solution short of overthrowing the world order and that is simply to grieve. Pretchel’s understanding of grief allows for us to usefully understand why we get the sense of ourselves and our movements as zombified.
When we cannot grieve we are in an important sense less alive, we are the walking dead. It is ironic that overwork has lead to this zombie-like condition considering that the idea of zombies is related to myths spread by slave owners in the Caribbean to deter enslaved Africans from committing suicide to escape bondage. They were told that instead of going to heaven they would be forced to walk the earth forever. In a sense, our culture of constant work in which regular grieving feels impossible, untenable, or worse unprofessional, is forcing us to become zombies rather than quit working to take care of ourselves.
Signs of Unprocessed Pyrrhic Grief:
What we are talking about here is a post-burnout phenomenon. Signs of burnout include prolonged fatigue, increased cynisms, aches and pains and noticeable over or under reaction to events. Unprocessed Pyrrhic Grief often coincides with burnout but is not “curable” through rest, exercise, eating well, and better time management.
This is a condition that arises when whole social networks have been faced with a Pyrrhic loss that is not talked about while the rest of the world seems to be obsessed with pretending the fight didn’t even happen. It begins to warp our perceptions of ourselves and our relationships while creating habit energy that draws us back into the same patterns even after rest. The main signs are:
- Foundational personal impacts that are clear and recognizable
- Financial, social, emotional or physiological problems are directly tied to specific movement work, beyond just stress. For example, spending large sums of personal money to support people in crisis to the extent that their own bills are being unpaid.
- Politics and purpose becomes grey areas
- Decisions are no longer in alignment with or even measured against our political ideals or our sense of our own purpose. For example: making decisions based on what makes us feel safe emotionally versus what we believe is the right, strategic, or values-aligned action.
- Basic needs are not getting met
- People are no longer eating or drinking enough, go long stretches without sleeping or neglect medical needs in order to do more “work.”
- Stop-Loss Fatigue
- Stop-Loss is a set of techniques the military uses to prolong people’s enlistments during war, often to great social and emotional harm to veterans. In conversations with our veteran comrades we see similar situations in social movements where coercion replaces commitment and willingness as the main motivations for action. Examples include patterns of conflict where comrades make repeated requests of other comrades that are beyond their capacity while simultaneously critiquing their responses to burnout. When the option of the organization doing less to facilitate the comrades stepping back is unacceptable this creates a pattern of self-coercion that depends on both fatigue and conflict.
A Blue-Print For Healing:
The only real, tangible, scalable solution to such wide-scale loss we can imagine is some sort of emancipatory grieving. A truly collective endeavor in which our community frees us to be human by supporting us grieving our losses. Yet, years of neo-liberalism and the sheer tonnage of unprocessed loss means that many of us are not actually in community at all or in communities incapable of organizing collective grieving. Thus, a proximate treatment is needed. We believe it must be something like what we are calling regenerative self-manumission. Let’s break down that phrase for a second.
Manumission is when a captor frees an enslaved person by their own free will. It is in contrast to emancipation which is the freeing of slaves, as a class, by the state. Until we have a state interested, let alone capable, of such emancipation, manumission is what we will have to settle for. Specifically, we mean self-manumission because, as King said “Nobody else can do this for us.”
“...Nobody else can do this for us. No document can do this for us...If the Negro is to be free, he [she] must move down into the inner resources of his [her] own soul and sign with the pen and ink of self-assertive manhood [womanhood] his [her] own Emancipation Proclamation.”- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King
We have to take ownership over our energies and situations to free ourselves from the lies and unreciprocated commitments that keep us chained to this inhuman dysfunction. This is not to say that we alone are to blame for those relationships, beliefs, and habits that chain us to work that no longer feeds us, cares for us, or sets us free. It is a statement of the simple fact that we are able to respond and thus responsible to take the first steps.
Such an endeavor would also need to be regenerative. We need to learn to grieve in an uncolonized way. That is, to let our grief make us more of ourselves, more human, more capable of loving ourselves, each other, and the land. Grief should reinvigorate our dedication to our purpose/potential. It should also bring us back to the work of healing the world, or fixing what is broken.
We can no longer afford people exiting the movement disillusioned about the possibility for change. Though we cannot expect healed people to play the same fighting role they did when they were leading from their wounds, we need them to keep the fire of the hope of change alive in their hearts.
So, regenerative manumission is first and foremost a practice of resourced grieving. It is a way of being supported to take the time to chart the ways we have been hurt and the things we lost to the fire so we can praise the aspects of our humanity that are essential to our being. By grieving the loss we can reify our values and our ideal way of life.
Regenerative manumission is also a set of processes that realign movement forces with natural gravity so they can live and work in balance. So often our collective work is established by funding deadlines, tax deadlines, elections, and media cycles which are so often faster and less sustainable than the pace at which we live human lives, while also being too slow when we need them to respond to our crises.
Being in alignment with natural gravity means flowing to where things are heavy for as long as they are heavy while letting them be light the rest of the time. It means never moving so fast that you can’t slow down and take stock of what matters.
Furthermore, regenerative self-manumission is focused on ensuring the survival of people and communities, not organizations. We believe that organizations exist to serve the needs of the living. When we start to serve organizational interests at the cost of life, we become alienated from that life and the community of living beings.
This does not mean that we place individual good over communal good, but that we separate the communal good from narrow organizational interests. Organizations are easier to rebuild than people. Organizations can be expendable while people never are.
This means putting people and relationships before work and being willing to risk transactional relationships for the sake of healing and growth (and the possibility of transformative relationships). If stopping activity might hurt people then we might have to continue the activity until scaffolding is in place.
But we should never continue to coerce ourselves and others to sacrifice ourselves on the altar of “the work” in the abstract, i.e. the nebulous commitments we have about what it means to be in the movement that are divorced from the actual needs of real people. No one's life depends on a grant report or us doing an interview on the news.
Putting people first means prioritizing social reproduction over production within the non-profit-industrial complex. It means putting communal care, interpersonal nurturing, and creating the conditions for sustainable relationships over work products. It means remembering that we are human beings, not humans doing.
Without sustainable, equitable social reproduction no other kind of production is possible. Put another way, taking care of people, raising children, and being present with our fellow humans is the work that makes all other work possible. Our strategies for moving forward cannot leave social reproduction to be an afterthought.
A Potential Program of Regenerative Self-Manumission
The solution we need must go far beyond proselytizing self-care and community-care (though it must still do that). We need to prototype and then normalize a culture of deeply resourcing a cycle of action, hibernation, reflection, and action in a new realm. Such a culture is so anti-thetical to how movement work is currently done that we need to expect many false starts on the road to a success. Thus, we can only offer a potential outline of programs that we believe could lead to regenerative self-manumission on scale.
WildSeed Society believes that we must start with practices for grief. We offer a simple but powerful practice of writing a grief letter ritual. This ritual, developed by our Spirit Weaver Erika Totten, helps you complete a thorough inventory of what you are grieving while supporting you to lovingly release your emotional grasp on things you no longer have - one by one.
As we noted earlier however, we can’t stop at individual solutions when grief is impacting the collective. Thus, we believe that Collective Healing Retreats and Peer Respite Programs will also be needed. In our vision of healing retreats, a cohort of 10-20 people will be selected to participate in 4 retreats over the course of 6 months. The attendees will receive comprehensive healing support from a personalized team of medical, mental and spiritual wellness professionals. The goal is that each person creates a self-sustainability plan that helps them integrate their trauma and increase their capacity for self-regulation.
This individual support can be paired with organizational development for their sponsoring organization or local movement ecologies in order to support it with developing its own regenerative and trauma stewardship capacities. Though it must be said, it is often true that people need to heal in different environments than they experienced harm, we hope that offering support to organizations can help slow down burnout for other organizers.
The last program is a peer respite program. This program is based on our work supporting our cadre member Reece Chenault. It also shares a name with a similar program run by Live & Learn, Inc. The program would support organizers in crisis by providing temporary residential stays with at least two fellow organizers further along on their mental health journey. The peer support team helps with everyday tasks and peer coaching while the organizer receiving care builds and engages with their wellness team of professionals and clinicians.
We believe that every local movement ecology needs a suite of programs like this (Regenerative Self Manumission, Collective Healing Retreats and Peer Respite together).
All of these programs stem from our regular organizational praxis. At least half our team has experienced Unprocessed Pyrrhic Grief and we have had to find more effective ways of holding them and resourcing their healing journeys. We have built out care teams and normalized taking sabbaticals by breaking the year into seasons, with a retreat at the beginning of each season, to support people going into or coming out of sabbatical.
While the results of these experiments are promising, we are looking to expand this experiment to include movement organizers outside our organization. If you are able, please donate to this and our other work here. If you want to learn more about the lessons we are learning in these experiments, please sign up here.
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