A.C.T. For Activists

ACT+Hexaflex(This article originally appeared in the June 2018 edition of The New People newspaper.)

Depression. Anxiety. Despair. These are just some of the emotional distresses that I have observed in friends, comrades, and in myself, as we engage seriously in the work of social justice. Unfortunately, I have also observed a high occurrence of burnout among activists. It seems that many activists just do not have effective strategies for coping with the emotional rollercoaster that is part and parcel of confronting the myriad injustices in our world. And it isn’t just our justice work that is responsible for our emotional distresses. Poverty, war, racism, sexism, and other systemic injustices can be correlated with the mental illnesses suffered by millions of Americans.

So, what can we who fight the good fight do to take care of ourselves in the midst of all of these challenges? What practices can we engage in to keep ourselves emotionally fit for the long haul? In my work as a board-certified clinical chaplain, I am privileged to have been trained in several evidence-based therapeutic modalities, principles of which I use in my care of patients in the hospital setting. One of those modalities is called “Acceptance Commitment Therapy” or ACT. ACT’s overall goal is to increase “psychological flexibility” in response to the inevitable difficulties of life. Kershner and Farnsworth, ACT practitioners, define psychological flexibility “as the ability to adapt behavior to varying contexts and situations in the pursuit of one’s core values.” I have found that ACT’s core processes are effective in my chaplaincy work, but also for self-care as I engage in my volunteer work as a peace and justice activist.

There are six core processes of ACT which can be used for self-care. First, Acceptance is the willingness to accept our feelings in the face of suffering. Acceptance allows us to feel our feelings without judgment or defense. If you are extremely saddened by the racism in our society or anxious about all the work that needs to be done to end the senseless wars in our world, then accept your feelings as normative to the situation.

Another process of ACT is living in the Present Moment. For this, the practice of mindfulness is especially important. Mindfulness practice keeps us focused in the here and now and helps us to not ruminate on the unchangeable past or over-think an uncontrollable future. Defusion, a third process in ACT, is the method of responding differently to our negative thoughts about ourselves. When those negative thoughts enter your mind, you might say, “I am not my thoughts” or “I am having a negative thought, but I am not that thought.” Defusion is especially important in dealing with the often hurtful responses activists might get from reactionaries.

Related to Defusion, another ACT process is viewing one’s Self as Context. We, as “whole” humans, are not the content of what we do or what we have. As Henri Nouwen once said, “I am not what I do, what I have, or what others think of me. I am the beloved.”

Maybe what I appreciate most about ACT in relation to activism and self-care is its focus on living a Values-driven life. This is a fifth process of ACT where we remind ourselves what our core values are and recommit to living by them. This is a key piece to my own self-care. I refuse to see my emotional challenges as impediments to the valuable work I do for justice in the world. And finally, the sixth process of ACT is when we bring our values to life by moving into Committed Action. This means we can engage in activism based on an open, present moment understanding of who we are and in accordance with our values, in the midst of the anxiety, depression, or other strong emotions we may be experiencing.

To summarize, the ACT processes for self-care might be remembered simply as Accepting our thoughts and feelings, Choosing a valued direction, and Taking action.

Finally, I want to say that self-care strategies may not be enough if your emotional distress is severely interfering with your work, in your home, or relationships. I recommend seeing a mental health professional if your symptoms become acute or are too difficult to manage.

If you would like more information about ACT or to find an ACT counselor, go to http://www.contextualscience.org.

(c) Paul Dordal, 2018

 

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On Not Killing (Reflection)

no-killingIn World War II, at least three out of four U.S. combat infantryman did not fire their weapons at the enemy—even in the midst of battle. In that decisive moment to engage in mortal combat more than 75% of infantry soldiers became conscientious objectors.  LTC (Ret.) Dave Grossman, in his ground-breaking book, On Killing, said, in World War II, “… 80 to 85 percent of riflemen did not fire their weapons at an exposed enemy, even to save their own lives and the lives of their friends. In previous wars, non-firing rates were similar.”[i]  Other research shows that there is, “a powerful, innate human resistance toward killing one’s own species….”[ii]

After World War II, the U.S. Government/Military decided that their combat training had to change in order that soldiers could become reflexive firers. The military realized that soldiers needed to be conditioned to believe that they had no choice but to fire, and to fire on reflex or muscle memory. They had to be conditioned to kill, because killing other humans is antithetical to humanity. Additionally, this new training and conditioning included the systematic dehumanization of real or potential enemies to ensure that the soldier would not be presented with a moral dilemma when the moment arose to engage the enemy—other human beings. Thus, the soldier had to be dehumanized as well.

Since the combat training program was changed after World War II, individual fire rates of U.S. service members have increased in every U.S. war to almost 95% today.

Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that retired Navy psychiatrist William P. Nash found that upwards of 75% of returning combat veterans since Vietnam are suffering from a PTSD-like malady called Moral Injury. Nash said, as soldiers come home from war “something is damaged, broken. They feel betrayed; they don’t trust in [the military’s] values and ideals anymore.”[iii]

If it is in the nature of humanity not to kill other humans, and we condition people to do so, once that conditioning is no longer needed (post-combat), a significant moral crisis inevitably occurs. In order for humans to kill humans, the military must convert humans into something inhuman to kill those they have convinced are worse monsters.

Now, if the U.S. as a society allowed the government through its military to forcibly convert 75-80% of peace loving humans into killers in just a span of a few decades, could not we as a society have more readily converted the 20-25% of those who might kill into peacemakers? If we think war is inevitable because a small segment of society is capable of using deadly violence against others, should we not also believe, based on the evidence, that there exists the capacity of the overwhelming majority of peaceful humans to nonviolently restrain the potentially violent? Do we not delude ourselves when we believe that the best way to combat violence is with the same means that violence is perpetrated against the innocent and peaceful?

The apostle Paul called Christians to not use the “weapons of this world” to resolve conflict (2 Cor 10:4a). Jesus said, “Put your sword away. Everyone who uses a sword will die by a sword” (Mt 26:52). The call of Christ is to be peacemakers, not killer-makers or war-makers. We are called to “transform deadly weapons into farming equipment, and swords into kitchen utensils. Nations shall not attack other nations with military force, and all the countries of this world must cease from training their citizens to become killers” (Is 2:4). The message of all true religion is to bring peace to the world.

So, what can we do? If you are veteran, please join a local chapter of Veterans For Peace. If you are a civilian, join your local peace group (Code Pink, Peace Action, Pax Christi, Pace e Bene, WILPF, Peace Links, etc). If you are a Christian or religious person join a peace-promoting congregation or call on your current congregation to join the peace movement.

Let’s get busy! It is time for us to live up to our human nature as a peaceful, cooperative species.

Peace is possible.

(c) Paul Dordal, 2017

Notes
[i] Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009, 252.
[ii] Ibid, xxxi.
[iii] See David Wood, Moral Injury: A Warrior’s Moral Dilemma. Downloaded from http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/projects/moral-injury/the-recruits

The Last Scapegoat (Reflection)

scapegoat-JesusWhen Jesus went voluntarily to the Cross as the Lamb of God, he sacrificed himself as history’s last scapegoat.

True Christians, as followers of The Last Scapegoat, proclaim in word and deed that they will never scapegoat anyone; that they will endeavor to never discriminate against or hate others. For they realize that in doing so, if they marginalize or blame immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, LGBTQI, leftists, or some other people group for their problems or the problems of society, then they crucify their Savior all over again.

© Paul Dordal, 2017

Unwinnable

ddequoteYesterday, as the US president visited Pennsylvania and thousands waved their flags, chanting USA, USA, the sickening reality of endless US militarism and imperialism continues to go unchecked by just about everyone in this country.

I served honorably in the US military as a chaplain for seven years and was in combat for a year in Iraq. Nevertheless, I simply cannot understand why so many US citizens are so supportive of war and not appalled by this country’s increasing militarism and imperialism. US wars have not solved anything or brought about peace. US militarism and imperialism have not made us safer, and certainly, have not made the rest of the world safer.

It also perplexes me that US citizens believe president after president who say that the US military is the “best” in the world. If we would take our heads out of the sand for just one moment, we would see that the US military has failed miserably over the last 50 years at accomplishing sustainable peace in the world.

Why? Because the US government and its military-industrial-complex are not in the business of winning wars or peacemaking, but of maintaining continual wars to steal or control resources, subjugate other nations, and line the pockets of the plutocrats (the 1%) who actually run this country.

The US has invaded or bombed seven different countries since September 11, 2001 and has hundreds of military bases all over the world, with little to nothing to show for any of it. Yet, the call of the current US regime is for even more money to be spent on the military and war.

Below is a list of six of those seven countries, all Muslim majority nations, that the US military is currently bombing or fighting in, with the (estimated) percentage of the land/population that each of these country’s government has control of:[i]

  1. Libya: 90% controlled by terrorists and militias
  2. Syria: 65% controlled by terrorists and militias
  3. Somalia: 50% controlled by terrorists and militias
  4. Afghanistan: 40% controlled by Taliban, terrorists, or militias
  5. Yemen: 30% controlled by terrorists and militias
  6. Iraq: 20% controlled by terrorists

How is it possible that all of these countries are so unstable when we have spent two trillion dollars ($2,000,000,000,000) fighting the so-called war on terror? This is not to mention the millions killed, wounded, or forced to flee from these countries because of war. And what do we US citizens have to show for all our warmongering since 2001: Tens of thousands of U.S. servicemen and women dead or wounded, an astounding twenty trillion dollars in debt, and not more stability or safety, but more chaos, more terrorism, and less safety.  Yet, amazingly, many US citizens keep waving their flags and saying let’s bomb and invade some more.

Bombings and war will not bring peace! They just bring more bombing and war.

It’s time to wake up and wage peace! War does not work! War is not winnable!

Peace is possible.

© Paul Dordal, 2017

[i] Source: Al Jazeera