Outrage Fatigue

‘LEARN TO REST, NOT TO QUIT’ – BANSKY

Dedicated to Cara Good

By Mara Eve Robbins

Outrage is exhilarating but exhausting. Especially satisfying when colored with righteous indignation. Effective tinder when inciting the kind of fire that motivates us to make change. Devastating to all parties involved when exhibited for vengeance, the idea that someone must “pay.”

Fatigue is real. Outrage fatigue, caution fatigue, compassion fatigue. Caregivers often experience the latter, and it can compromise quality of care when unrecognized. We tend to apply empathy to so many different situations in order to soothe that we can become barely able to differentiate. It’s like triage. What’s bleeding the most? What’s life-threatening? How can we apply harm reduction?

Addressing fatigue requires rest. Stillness. The ability to cope in a healthy way with nourishment, sustenance, hygiene, replenishment. Some semblance of safety, even if momentary.

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One way outrage is defined is as “the anger and resentment aroused by injury or insult.” Or “the threat of perceived injustice.” And when we break down the flow of the energy of our anger into the tributaries it requires: “Anger, in this way, is not antithetical to love. It expresses compassion for the downtrodden and the desire for a better world.” 

So how do similar explorations of fatigue apply to despair? Fear? Disgust? Trauma? How do we move past the “hurt people hurt people” phenomena? What is the emotional equivalent of a band-aid?

One way fatigue is defined: “Weariness or exhaustion from labor, exertion, or stress” or “a state or attitude of indifference or apathy brought on by overexposure (as to a repeated series of similar events or appeals).” It is also worth considering “the tendency of a material to break under repeated stress.”

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In mid-March of 2020 everything changed. We were thrust into a very different existence. Some say risk assessment is marginally effective and thus create interactive maps. Some say it is impossible. That “viruses are the ultimate Schrödinger’s cat of modern biology.”  

Where does effective help come from? What does it look like? And is it co-dependent (at the expense of oneself) rather than interdependent (collaborating and cooperating and looking out for each other)?

I’m tired. Tired of trying. I listen to Yoda: “Do or do not, there is no try.” I’m tired of failing. Tired of learning from my mistakes. Tired of so many big, big stories, complicated yarns all tangled up in other ones, abstract concepts side-by-side with distinct, applicable particulars: “this hurt me or someone I love in this way therefore…”

Tired of needing to extend patience to myself for my process. Convincing myself that it is not selfish to care for one’s self, not blind to turn one’s eyes in another direction, not self-defeating to engage in nurturing self-worth when the whole idea of capitalism being applied to people in the way we commodify ourselves and each other is a broken, homeless concept difficult to separate from others and address effectively.

There is rage. 

And fatigue. 

The process right now, for me, is learning how to push that out and potentially channel it where it needs to go. This is more like meteorology than psychology.  Adrienne Rich suggested that she would “choose to love/ this time/ for once/ with all my intelligence.” 

I would like to do that. 

Because ideally, we are kind and affectionate towards those we love.

And because we defend what we love. 

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In the era of pandemic, most of us are hyper-vigilant. I prefer to treat some of my symptoms and coping mechanisms as superpowers rather than liabilities. Take our stress response, for example. “This area of the brain [the hypothalamus] functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.” 

It’s certainly useful to recognize a threat and outrun it. It’s useful to know when to hold our ground and dig in our heels and show our claws. 

It’s also exhausting. 

Fatigue also means: “manual or menial work (such as the cleaning up of a camp area) performed by military personnel.” Until recently, I only understood fatigues as a plural concept: “the uniform or work clothing worn on fatigue and in the field.” As I’ve bushwhacked my way through the woods in order to make my own new neural pathways, it’s been useful to have pockets. But I never thought of fatigue as work.

Not long ago, campuses across the nation were grappling with outbreaks of covid-19 as some students headed back to school. A class four hurricane named Laura killed six people and caused a toxic chemical leak, toppling a confederate statue that the local government had just decided to keep. Jacob Blake is handcuffed to his hospital bed after getting shot seven times in the back by police officers. When protests broke out, a 17-year-old white man/boy opened fire. He faces charges “in the deaths of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, the attempted killing of Gaige Grosskreutz and the reckless endangerment of reporter Richard McGinnis.” And the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a proposed 42-inch high-pressure fracked gas transmission line I’ve been fighting for six years, just applied for two more years to abuse communities. There are undocumented wetlands and sediment laden rivers that will never recover from the destruction wrought thus far. 

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In short, there’s a lot to be upset about. So much to be outraged over. Many, many injustices shouting for our attention. 

Fatigue, though? The daily work of showing up again and again with witness? Attempted and often achieved action? A diversity of approaches lending strength to our fusion movements? Is that fatigue? Is it manual or menial work? 

I was thirty years old when my husband Cory died. One of the legacies I carry is a love of cargo pants. They were what he mostly wore. And his were mostly army fatigues passed down by his uncles or purchased at a military surplus store. Once, when we were pretty young, he showed me bloodstains on the pockets of the pair his Uncle Lenny had given him. 

My cargo pants are mostly stained with paint and indigo dye, mended with imperfect prints on patches gleaned from haphazard indirect activism. The pockets are what matters. I prefer to have whatever I need on me at all times, really basic necessities compressed into the pockets of my pants or jackets in case I do not have access to my backpack. It’s a coping mechanism that benefits both me and others since I tend to have ibuprofen or a safety pin, band-aids or a sharpie marker. Sometimes all of them. Sometimes more.

Banksy tells us that “if you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit.” 

At the moment, given my outrage and my fatigue, this seems like one of the best ways to “choose to love/ this time/ for once/ with all my intelligence,” though I would add an “s” to those intelligences and recognize that my brain is not my mind and that my mind is not my heart. My heart is not my gut and my gut both is and is not my brain, considering the insight that lurks there, offering intuition. This is the work of integration. This is where the exhaustion of fatigue shifts into the work of outrage. Or the other way around. Where I try to apply whatever I can to the issue at hand and also take my hands and place them on my heart and my belly, leaning into the feeling of urgency and leaning away from it, too. Where I take action in the face of grief. Or I don’t. Where I recognize that I’m tired and I rest, knowing I don’t have to quit. Where my own well-being takes priority over another viral outbreak, another storm, another shooting, another protest, another permit for another pipeline poised to destroy another fragile ecosystem. 

This is where I recognize that I can respond rather than react to internalized fury so volatile it can consume whatever it touches and reduce it to ashes. Externalized rage directed at the injustice I know in my heart, gut, and brain to be unjust. How to put whatever I need into my bloodstained pockets and continue to create rested, effective intelligences. With love.

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© Mara Eve Robbins, 2020. Mara Eve Robbins is a short-a Appalachian author, activist and organizer. She protects water, loves trees, and cares for those who defend both. Her book, “Seeing Red,” will be released this fall through Propertius Press.