Sustainable Activism for Gifted People

In our current world where activism for systemic change is calling to more and more of us, how do we gifted people, with our complex minds, sensitive emotions and often very big visions, engage meaningfully without becoming overwhelmed or burned out? InterGifted coach Jan Provoost explores how slowing down offers us a way to engage more meaningfully and sustainably in advocating for and making real change in the world.

 

by Jan Provoost


THE ART OF SAVING THE PLANET BY . . . DOING LESS

In our current world, a question that many of us have is how we can take effective climate or environmental action, without becoming overwhelmed or burned out ourselves. For gifted people, this may be a particularly challenging conundrum. With a hundred new ideas and visions a week, plus 24/7 online possibilities for learning, researching and creating, it seems like there’s always something new to take in or some new problem to be solved – and sometimes our complex minds would want to do it all right now.

Below is an attempt at feeling my way into a possible answer for us. I don’t present these ideas from a vantage point of certainty, but more as a nudge towards a generative dialog that we should have. Being in the InterGifted community for years now, and supporting gifted people in their own path, I know I am not alone in wanting to have this dialog. So what I share below, I share with that in view, knowing that there may be extra challenges to the gifted person’s shift in this regard – but being somewhere along the journey of applying this mindset, I also know there are unique opportunities and pleasant surprises that await those of us who walk it.

What I advocate – in short – is a smart and rational way of slowing down. A path of personal growth that includes degrowth. Growth in what sustains us, in contentedness and resilience; degrowth in what exhausts us: the forever-on busyness and overreaching. A path in which non-doing and slower-doing is both a means of personal regeneration and effective action. That way, taking a slow walk in nature while mindfully foregoing unsustainable busyness can be a cornerstone of your activism, going against the grain of what the current system would have you do.

A WORLD ACCELERATING, GRABBING INTO THE FUTURE

Already in 1654, the prescient French philosopher Blaise Pascal quipped: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Think about that for a second. This is an observation from an era where people largely lived according to the seasons and the weather. Activities, such as the jeux de boules and the occasional wars, were only performed during the warmer months; winters were harsher then, even in France, and people often went into something very much akin to hibernation. If we could observe people living in e.g. 1st, 10th , or 17th century Europe, we wouldn’t notice much of a difference in the number of hours they slept, the speed with which they spoke, the way and speed with which they moved and traveled.

Compare that to the beginning of the 21st century. What we see around us is a world where life is run not only faster, but where that faster is even accelerating. We see it when we compare how we go from one point to another, when we compare how and how much we learn, when we compare how we work, and even when we compare how we spend our time off. Many of us sleep less, live faster, even talk faster than people used to do on average, even just one generation ago.

This acceleration obviously comes with a few advantages, but also with a number of troubling issues. One is that acceleration, efficiency, and busyness have come to be a goal in themselves, a yardstick for people and the many circles and organizations they belong to. A yardstick also for people to assess themselves. Only: acceleration, efficiency, and busyness are inherently without meaning. They are meaningless without a meaningful goal. We can run ourselves into exhaustion and still feel none the better.

Many feel this, the tension of having to run up meaningless activity and having to advocate organizations that do so. Constantly working as a means and never for a goal, constantly having to adapt and speed up and somehow never arriving. No wonder then that many are dropping out, at an ever-younger age, and often with health issues and existential questions. For gifted people who tend to feel a particularly deep need for meaning in everything they do, bore-out, existential depression, and positive disintegration are also common reactions to this impasse.

The other side of the coin is that the busyness acceleration is also excruciatingly bad for the planet and the environment. For one, speeding up our society requires energy, much energy. The byproduct of using that energy is CO2, which accumulates warmth. As so many speed up, get more stuff from ever father away, have to squeeze in more far-away moments…we’re growing a footprint that far exceeds what the planet can sustain and regenerate.

To keep going and accelerating, our current system necessarily has to take more than its just share. It has us reach into the future and grab with both hands, fast and greedily, with us as the means to do the grabbing. We grab from our own future, our bodies and energy. And we grab from future generations, their resources for a healthy planet.

CLIMATE ACTIVISM AS YET MORE BUSYNESS 

Many feel that activism, or even just remaining informed, is an activity on top of what they already try to do, on top of their busy life. And then sadly, it often becomes just this activity too much, the activity with which we are overstepping the boundaries of what we can carry. But how can we convince the world that it should not overstep its boundaries, if in doing that convincing, we must overstep our own boundaries? How can we see the world slowing down by us accelerating?

There is a parallel between this type of busy green activism and what is hailed by some as ‘green growth’: the idea that we can somehow grow ourselves out of the present conundrum if we only add enough sustainable measures and new technology on top of our overstepping.

The cracks in that reasoning are there for all to see. In my country, for example, we’re at the absolute maximum of nitrogen we can add to nature without it starting to degrade. It’s 100% full. Adding Green Technology on top isn’t possible, because any windmill, solar energy park, or long-distance biking road will cause additional nitrogen to be added to the environment.

As long as that 100% full was still a distant prospect, anyone predicting it would be called a pessimist. No longer so, because we are stuck right here and now. Any addition, even the very good green ones, have to be compensated by closing something else down.

Likewise, if you are already struggling to hold things together, if you are at 100% of more of what you can carry, how can adding activities on top – even climate activism – help you and the world on a better path? Also here, any new activity should be compensated, more than compensated by stopping something else.

DEGROWTH, GETTING PERSONAL 

The idea that our economic system and our societal organization should change is felt by many, but new ideas are only emerging and still fairly marginal. Thinkers and authors that put forward alternatives get a growing fanbase, think of Kate Raworth (the Doughnut Economy), Aaron Hurst (the Purpose Economy), Jason Hickel (Degrowth), Claire Brown (Buddhist Economics)…

Degrowth, for example, is an interesting concept, but it is often misunderstood to mean that all economic activities should contract, an interpretation that grates on many. What is really meant is that we should foremost inform ourselves of what we value as a society and use that as a gauge to decide which elements of the economy should contract or grow. So no longer indiscriminate growth but value-informed growth.

These ideas about alternative economic organization are surely interesting to consider on an intellectual level. But as individuals living now, wanting to take meaningful action now, they may leave us wanting. We might believe in them, support their author, give a like or two on social media, but they may also leave us feeling more powerless than we already were. That’s why I want to suggest seeing if we can implement some of these ideas in our personal lives. Personal degrowth, for one, offers a possibility for a personal path that is both healing and a powerful means of activism.

ACTIVE NON-DOING (OR SLOWER DOING)

Imagine if we could and would only pursue meaningful activities, if we would take time, inform ourselves thoroughly before engaging in any activity, keep any demand under a critical light. Feeling if it fits our values and our image of a good life and a good future. And then do it mindfully, as best as we can. Imagine.

For most of us, that would have us stop right in our tracks. Because the many activities we all are engaged in are so entangled, so hard to assess, so stripped of value often. We might even conclude that one of the most meaningful, least harmful activities would be doing nothing much at all. Which is probably right.

That is of course, excluding taking care of your basic needs and security. These are essential and meaningful. Instead of being questioned, they should be prioritized. Still often, people who don’t have their basic needs met may be the first to climb the barricades, thereby even adding to what is lacking in their life: safety, love, housing, food.

But it’s also taking stock when your basic needs are met. Time and again, I asked my daughters (now grown-ups): do you really need these new clothes and cosmetics? The question often amused them; for them it seemed like a question from a bygone age. If you have the money (or if your parents have it), why not buy?

Their mockery showed it was a good question. Questioning is an activist stance. To be applied with reason, because it’s not one that may get you many new friends. But then again that’s not the purpose of activism, is it?

It’s of course much more than buying. It’s also for example the whole way we move through our space: the distances longer and the times set aside to move ever shorter. Ideally it seems, a move should take no time at all, be it to our family, our work, our holiday destination. Moving 1,000 kilometers like clicking on a website. The idea that we could walk there if we only took the time, now seems outright ridiculous.

So this is also probably worthwhile to consider: walking there and back as activism (or take the slow train).

One aspect that keeps bugging me is how we have come to value activity per se, excluding its meaning and ethics. That’s become so normal in businesses and organizations that we often don’t see it anymore. Look for example at the majority of business or management coaches, and they will help anyone grow stronger, whatever that person does. The few times I chimed in in freelance or business communities about consciously choosing one’s activities, my comments were met with polite silence. Business is business; a customer is a customer (even if he’s polluting or extracting like there is no tomorrow).

So another good question, met by polite silence. Choosing not to engage in a professional activity, whether by not giving it much attention or by outright foregoing it can be powerful activism and resistance. Of course, I’m aware, consciously refusing an opportunity may be hard. If you are not in a position to do so, if doing so would harm your security and safety, then be pragmatic.

Meaningless busyness is of course also a trap for gifted minds that perpetually strive to grow, sometimes without assuming responsibility for values and meaning. This trap often leads to overwhelm and a dissipation of actual potential – so much of everything that nothing actually feels satisfying. Psychologist Barry Schwartz calls this "The Paradox of Choice".

Also here, consciously slowing down and taking stock may be liberating. It’s an invitation to take a deep and hard look at your values, values that are at the same time generators of meaning and instruments for making conscious choices. Not everything is worthwhile, not everything should be pursued.

DRAWING A TENTATIVE CONCLUSION AND OPENING THE GENERATIVE DISCUSSION 

Many of us are over 100% occupied, and we succeed only, barely, by compressing activities. If we’d now have to do all the working, the moving about, the buying, the befriending, the choosing, the activism in a mindful and conscious perspective, there’d be a serious lack of hours.

But here is the thing: with speeding up, we seem to lose meaning, which we compensate with the next thing available – more activity. But with slowing down, wisely slowing down, we regain meaning. Time to breathe and love, to discuss and enjoy, to be.

Doing activities in a more conscious, mindful way runs counter to all trends in our society. It requires people to acknowledge that our allotted time is limited. That alone is, according to many traditions, already a huge booster of meaning.

But having to choose and so necessarily cutting down on activities also limits our consumption and energy expenditure. Often, activity is like a house of cards. Chuck out one card that seems meaningless, and many other cards also become meaningless. The house of consumerism and busyness comes crashing down, which is an outcome every climate activist dreams of.

Starting from what is enough, from a personal economy of enough, it seems we may suddenly have some time on our hands. Time we can consciously use to engage in climate or environmental action – for example, by helping other people to slow down.

ADDITIONAL EXPLORATIONS & INSPIRATION

To feed the dialog we should have, much has been written and said that may inspire us. But after reading this article, you will certainly appreciate that loading up with information is the snake that bites its tail. You should not, I suggest, do it on top of your current activity. Rather, create the time by not-doing and then see if something some of the resources below fit in:

I Heart Earth, a companion project of Intergifted, is running a series of climate engagement talks which you may want to listen to. Some of these directly pertain to the theme of slowing down and consciously engaging. There is for example the talk of Jennifer Harvey Sallin with Kelly Isabelle DeMarco on Regenerative Activism, or the one with Kathryn Sheridan on Sustainability of the Self, and one a recent one with me on Less is More: Slowing Down as a Form of Activism.

Another resource I can recommend is the series of meditations (65 episodes) that Jon Kabat-Zinn did in 2020 in collaboration with Wisdom 2.0, during the first phase of the pandemic. For Jon Kabat-Zinn, sitting down on a cushion and meditating is the highest form of resistance and love for the planet. For gifted-specific meditation and mindfulness, InterGifted's companion community The Gifted Mindfulness Collective is an excellent resource and support.

And what will we lose, you may ask? Well, I’m glad you asked. The discussion is open: what will you lose? And what will you gain?


Cover photo thanks to Aaron Burden via Unsplash

About Jan Provoost

Jan calls himself a writer, thinker, dreamer. As a writer and writing coach, he shapes ideas into engaging and thoughtful text. As a gifted and introverted thinker, he looks for ways to be actively and meaningfully engaged in the climate and environmental discussion. And as a dreamer, he keeps believing that we can make our next steps, out next words, our next breath count. He's an active leader in the InterGifted community and is available for writing coaching for gifted adults via InterGifted. Follow him here.

 

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