If you’re feeling down, you’re not alone

by | 23 Jun 2023

As I head off for two weeks' leave, I assess the emotional exhaustion I have felt and that so many people have said they feel too - and look at what we might do about it.

I’m just about to go on leave for two weeks, and I need it. It has been an exhausting year, I’ve not had any time off yet and I can feel myself worn out and demotivated. Fine, so are lots of people. Why am I wasting your time with this?

Because the scale of my weariness is out of proportion to the intensity of my workload. I have thought hard about why I’m feeling so drained because it is a conversation I’ve had with an awful lot of activists, and we seem to share the same ailment. My conclusion is that what is grinding people down is the sheer emotional toll of trying to remain optimistic in the face of events around us.

And my god is optimism hard to come by just now? This week the Scottish Government revealed yet another missed carbon emissions target – and it seems barely to have made the news. We had pretty grim economic news, a clearly dysfunctional domestic political scene, a permanently dysfunctional UK political scene, a petrifying geopolitical picture around us and, well, AI is scary.

The cost of living crisis is barely abating and now the mortgage time-bomb is hitting us as it always was always going to. The NHS is in a bad way and public services seem to be misfiring everywhere. So far this year it feels like Scotland seems to have failed at just about everything it has tried – except football (never thought I’d write that…).

But for a lot of people in my circles what seems to be particularly getting them down is the state of the cause of independence. For a very long time now they have been led to believe that serious, fast-moving action on independence was round the corner. They are now being confronted with the reality that there is no immediate prospect of change.

Many people had been hoping really, really hard that a change of leadership in the SNP would lead to a new approach. It hasn’t – this weekend’s conference really demonstrates how little has changed, how much we’re still stuck in the same loop, how big is the gap between the promises and anything that comes close to delivering on those promises.

Hope isn’t generating itself, and then if you stop and look at who is presenting you positive, hopeful options that you have any chance of believing in, you realise how far the balance is wrong

Activism is hard. Almost without fail the reason we are activists is because we are fighting for a cause we believe in against opponents who have the power and resources. Basically if it is you that has the power and the resources, you don’t need activism, you just use your power and resources to get what you want.

So it is inevitable that you are always fighting an uphill battle as an activist and you are always beset by recurring failures and disappointments. That is its nature. But so long as you can still hope and you can still believe, you can keep going in the face of setbacks.

So how is our hope doing? Social failures are everywhere, climate change is killing people now and has barely started, the global economy is shaking and geopolitics have become frankly, petrifying. If you combine that with the failure of Westminster rule and the failure to get anywhere near independence (which many people were clinging to as an escape hatch) you get a grim picture.

Hope isn’t generating itself, and then if you stop and look at who is presenting you positive, hopeful options that you have any chance of believing in, you realise how far the balance is wrong. Just now, for many, you can barely see the hope for the fear.

So if you feel it getting you down, you aren’t alone. I’m struggling. While physical labour is tiring, you leave it behind; emotional labour is exhausting and you carry it with you everywhere.

How do we as individuals respond to this? This is a really hard question to answer. It is in my nature to get angry at injustice, failure, complacency and arrogance so I spend a lot of time angry just now. Again, I’m only sharing this with you because of how many other people have said ‘I feel really angry and I feel guilty about it’. You’re not alone.

If you care about peace, you are surrounded everywhere by warmakers . If you care about social fairness, everywhere you look are financiers and billionaires getting bailed out again and again then who then screw us over anyway.

If you care about the climate crisis, you are never more than hours away from an oil exec, a trade unionists or a politician starting a sentence with ‘I’m not a climate change denier but…’ before advocating for getting as much oil out the ground as fast as we possibly can because it makes them wealthy. (If you’ve ever said this then you are a climate change denier and if you have oil wealth then your wealth is already being earned at the expense of children in Africa and South Asia.)

If you care about independence there is also a big chance that you hoped something genuinely different would happen under a new SNP leadership, yet you are surrounded by continuity, in government, in independence strategy, in the management of the party.

All of the above and so much more gives us all reason to be angry. Yet it is really important to be clear that anger can easily be deeply corrosive unless it is managed well. It can be hard – anger can be indulgent and unproductive, but what can you do when you feel it? Tell yourself to stop feeling it?

If we are going to make things better it will take all of us, all with the emotional resources to start fighting harder

My standard answer to this would be to encourage people to learn the difference between ‘hamoq’ and ‘hamas’. Hamoq is an Arabic word that means unfocussed, destructive anger while hamas is focussed, productive anger. Usually I would encourage people to take their hamoq and find a way to turn it into hamas (by this point I’ve been expelled from the Labour Party for using Arabic words).

So is this a moment when, collectively, we should take our reactive, shapeless, destructive anger and focus it into something sharp, something incisive, something useful? Can we turn our anger into a tool with which we can change the things that makes us angry, rejecting something which is just a scream of rage at it?

If I’m totally honest with you I can’t quite see what those tools are just now. It is hard to see what leverage any of us have at the moment, what we actually have the power to change. It isn’t public policy (while I’m away you’ll see a new Common Weal report on what has happened since the National Care Service bill was ‘paused’ so a ‘co-design’ process could be used, and it isn’t co-design).

That is what is burning me out the most. Often people contact me to say they just feel powerless, as if I don’t. We’re all powerless. It wouldn’t look like this if we had power. Scotland wouldn’t look like this if citizens had power. The world wouldn’t look like this if we all had power. The tools we could have manufactured from our anger this year don’t look sufficient for the task.

Everyone knows we face massive problems in Scotland (or everyone but the tiny number who are still tied into the fantasy that things are all going to plan and all we need to do is keep quiet for another few years). Very many people realise something has to change.

But if my correspondence and conversations are representative, people don’t know what it is. They, we, struggle to see what ‘the next thing’ looks like in Scotland. So when you don’t like ‘things as they are now’ and don’t know what ‘after this is over’ looks like, the sand starts to look like a nice place to store your head. 

So I take solace where I can. If everyone I talk to, civilian or activist, right or left, pro-indy or anti-indy, all think there is something serious wrong in Scotland and that something needs to be done about it, then surely in a democracy something has to give. Surely? Surely we can have this degree of constant failure and not see change?

We don’t lack the resources, the people or the determination. What we seem to lack is a plan to get behind – and those can be built with hard work. If there is a plan, perhaps we can start to believe again. We need to start to believe again.

I hope to come back refreshed and with my anger carefully sharpened. If you feel the same despondency and exhaustion I do, if you’re down, ready to walk away, had enough, I feel your pain, I really do. But try to stick it out. If the people who are sore at heart now leave the nation to those who are currently self-satisfied, it’ll get worse.

But it can get better. It can. We just need to will it and make it happen. Get a break this summer. Get your energy back. If we are going to make things better it will take all of us, all with the emotional resources to start fighting harder.

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