What Whales Taught Me about Activism

Orca whales breaching

When Sandra Bland died, I did what, at the time, I felt any good American citizen should do: I researched and read about her arrest and death till I couldn’t take it anymore.

And when I say I couldn’t take it anymore, I don’t mean that I got so disgusted with racism that I couldn’t bear to read another word. I don’t mean that my eyes hurt too badly to keep staring at the computer screen, or even that I got so sad that I knew I needed a break.

I mean that I read compulsively until I threw up.

I mean that I read, compulsively, about Bland and her life, tried to empathize with her family, read and reread and re-reread every official document pertaining to the case, until I threw up. I ate a can of cold soup for dinner and when I finally climbed into bed an hour earlier than usual, my partner told me I looked pale. I stayed home from work the next day feeling anxious, sick, and completely exhausted. I had done what my mother had always warned me about as an anxious kid: I had literally worried myself sick.

After that, I decided it was about time to get my butt back into the comfy couch at my therapist’s office. I told her that in my worldview, people who hold privilege (like me, in my middle-class white body) should never stop acknowledging oppressive systems. If the oppression doesn’t stop, neither should we.

But I also told her about the guilt I felt over the fact that I just can’t seem to sustain an intense emotional investment for too long before I break down. As someone who struggles with depression, getting too low down in the trenches can trigger depressive episodes, and I imagine that even for someone without depression it’s still no easy task to grapple with the reality of oppression too obsessively. Reading every article you can find about modern racism, watching every documentary about sexism, and reflecting intensively about your own complicity in systems of oppression are very worthwhile goals, but I had realized that you just can’t do it all. At least, not in one day.

Whales go down deep, but they always have to come up for air.

My therapist gave me some advice that has helped me a lot with letting myself take breaks for me-time. She told me to be like whales: whales go down deep, but they always have to come up for air. Going into research and activist mode is going down deep, but even a whale can’t stay under those waters forever. She still has to come up for air.

I’ve been using this advice in two ways. First, I’ve had to think a lot about what coming up for air looks like for me. As I’ve noted in a previous article, sometimes it’s easy to get so immersed in activism that you think that is your self-care. For me, it’s been helpful to make a list of other, more relaxing things I do for me. My list includes writing letters to friends, listening to a new (or old favorite) album, reading a fun book, and doodling anglerfish. When I start to feel overwhelmed — by the ills of the world, or just daily life — I pull out my list and take time to do something on it.

You have permission to take a break.

The second way this mantra helps me is by letting me feel that I have permission to take a break. I’m still a firm believer that a good human is one who knows about problems in the world and works actively against them. However, I’ve also accepted that this isn’t a sustainable way to live every moment of every day. Just as whales will drown if they stay in the depths for too long, so a person will get mentally or physically ill if they don’t take a break. It’s not just happy or healthy to come up for air, it’s necessary.

In fact, even the most inspirational activists in history had to take time for themselves. Did you know that Judith Butler, one of the most groundbreaking and respected feminist authors of our time, takes a swim every day and relaxes with a good Italian wine? Or that Malala Yousafzai has a soft spot for Ugly Betty and the Twilight series when she’s not busy making sure girls get an education? Even Barack Obama takes a break from leading America to collect Spiderman comic books. If they’ve made the world a better place while stopping to take care of themselves, you can too!

When you get overwhelmed by the world and its badness, let yourself take a break. Look at the whales: they relish the fresh air with creative spins and passionate belly-flops after a trip to the depths. Be like the whales. Go down deep, but remember to come up for your air.