Notes on Burnout from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers)

Last spring, my friend Rachel lead an interfaith Shabbat outside of Duke’s administrative building, where nine undergrads held a week-long sit-in to protest anti-black racism and worker abuse on campus. Exhausted from the last weeks of campaigning and protesting, we stood in a semi-circle to sing prayers and light candles.

Before we dispersed, Rachel shared with us a quote from Pirkei Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, a short tractate of the Mishna which records notable quotes, teachings, and proverbs.

“It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either (2:16).”

Almost every organizer I meet has, at one point or another, a phase of working themselves to the point of sickness or harm. I’ve watched friends and chosen family go through the same cycle again and again: shame for not winning, shame for not working hard enough, shame for making boundaries, shame for letting things get to them, shame for not prioritizing the work over their health, relationships, and sense of self.

We’d all do well to think about the forces of racism, classism, ableism, and patriarchy that create an uneven distribution of labor in our movements.  These structures of violence can, in turn, can pressure those who are already marginalized to take on extreme, unhealthy amounts of work under the premise that this is the only acceptable way to fight structural violence. Most of us are familiar with this victim-blaming logic: in moments of frustration with rape culture, we feel angry at the survivor who went to a soccer match instead of a direct action, though we know, of course, that the problem isn’t their “lack of dedication” but rather a whole culture that needs to change its attitudes towards sexual violence.

The work will still be here whether or not we keep up the assumption that all organizers are always able to do the unpaid labor that movements are often built on; whether the students of color join (yet another) working group on campus equity or the mother working multiple jobs comes to (yet another) meeting without childcare. The work will still be here whether or not the organizer with a chronic illness skips a protest march or the trans sex-educator declines an unpaid speaking gig.

This isn’t to say our work doesn’t matter; it’s just a reminder that we’re not the first, or the last, to feel tangled up in the labor of creating a new world. It’s divine, messy, tedious, and magical.  I believe that we will win.



One thought on “Notes on Burnout from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers)

  • Reply Delois Pronk May 2, 2018 at 6:40 am

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