You Can’t Pour From an Empty Cup

As the semester comes to a close, Anthony Ocampo and Kerry Ann Rockquemore share five strategies for academics experiencing “outrage fatigue.”

December 13, 2018
 
 
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Dear Mentors,

It’s the end of the semester, and I’m exhausted. But it’s not the usual type of exhaustion that happens every December from working long hours and having too much grading to do. I’m feeling overwhelmed by the onslaught of bad news, whether it be political crises or human tragedies. I am doing the best I can to stay up on these events, as I don’t want to turn a blind eye. And I’m working hard to educate myself (and my students) on these events. But in all honesty, I’m simultaneously experiencing “outrage fatigue” and feeling guilty about it. At this point, I can’t even look at my Facebook or Twitter feed without feeling enraged. I know this has been negatively impacting my work (and my life), but I’m not sure what to do.

Sincerely,

Fatigued Professor

Dear Fatigued Professor,

We’ve been hearing from lots of graduate students, postdocs and faculty members who are running on fumes as the year comes to a close. More than ever, our fellow educators are reporting high levels of physical and emotional exhaustion, as well as elevated stress on a daily basis. All of these negative consequences seem to be magnified the more time we spend on social media. (Trust us, we know firsthand.)

No matter what you call the exhaustion you’re experiencing, one thing is certain: you can’t pour from an empty cup.

We don’t have a definitive one-size-fits-all solution, but we can share some strategies that have worked for others who are (understandably) fatigued by daily events and the need to respond. Let’s be clear: since you’re already exhausted, don’t think of this as another to-do list. Instead, consider it a menu of possibilities that may help you to refill your cup so you’ll have the energy you need to do the work you see as important. Read them all, determine which one feels like it might alleviate your fatigue and experiment with it.

Engage in radical self-care. Any time you’re feeling exhausted, we encourage you to take a quick inventory of the basics:

  • What does your body need? Are you sleeping enough, eating well and getting regular exercise?
  • What does your mind need? Are you intentionally choosing how you take in new information or reactively ingesting it throughout the day?
  • What does your spirit need? What do you need to regain a sense of inner peace?

If you can sit in silence for a few minutes, quiet your mind and genuinely ask yourself these questions, you’re likely to generate some inner wisdom that will provide an immediate direction.

Given what’s going on in the world, this may seem like you’re being self-indulgent. But even the radical activist-scholar Audre Lorde wrote about how caring for yourself is an important part of self-preservation. The only way you can have the longevity to do the work you need to do is to take your self-care seriously. In other words, it may be time to start thinking of self-care as a form of social responsibility.

Unplug from the outrage machine. If your Facebook feed is triggering your anger, why not pull the plug for a scheduled period of time? The academic calendar is heading toward winter break, so this is a great time to consider a 30-day social media fast. Or maybe you’ve been overconsuming cable news. You can choose to turn off your TV entirely over the break.

And if you’ve had your notifications set on your computer or phone to let you know whenever breaking news happens, why not try turning those notifications off for a scheduled period of time? Many of our mentees’ exhaustion comes from constant pop-ups and dings that feed the urgent sense that perpetually breaking news requires their immediate attention (and social medial response). Maybe it does for you, but you’ll never know until you try some time without it.

Taking a break from social media and/or television doesn’t mean you’re sticking your head in the sand, becoming uninformed and/or ignoring pressing social problems. It just means you are experimenting with changing your mode of information consumption to see what happens. You can always read a physical newspaper, listen to NPR or read your favorite news source to stay abreast of current events.

Find some joy. It may seem impossible, and even problematic, to seek joy in the midst of so much societal misery. But we once heard Willie Jennings describe joy as “an act of resistance against despair and its forces,” and we wholeheartedly agree.

We don’t mean you should run around and try to get yourself into a state of fake happy. We mean you might take some time to ask yourself what brings you the kind of joy that you can feel in your bones. What activities, relationships or people trigger positive emotions just as surely as your Twitter feed provokes rage?

And if you think it’s problematic to feel joy in these challenging times, it may be time to ask yourself why -- and if that belief is deepening or lifting your outrage fatigue. Ryan Blocker, a colleague at the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity, suggested an alternative empowering belief could be that “joy is a form resistance, and resistance can also be joyful.” He reminded us that artists, chefs, musicians, satirists and comedians often engage the most turbulent times with creative insights and levity. So why not experiment with expanding your practice and thinking about joy?

Choose your actions. Whenever we experience the type of exhaustion you describe, it’s because there is just too much going on, everything seems important and all the problems require structural solutions. But what about stepping back and instead of trying to solve every big problem today -- and feeling hopeless and overwhelmed when you can’t -- asking a different question that focuses on what you can control and what really matters?

For example, Anthony once had a conversation with Harvard University immigration scholar Roberto Gonzales. Roberto said while we may not be able to do anything right now to achieve immigration reform, we can do many things as educators to improve the learning environments for undocumented students. They include being an open ear, validating their concerns and being cognizant of resources available to support them.

Anthony recently had a student whose family member was deported in the middle of the semester. It became clear to him that spending three hours being present for his student was far more impactful than spending three hours on social media being outraged at the news. The invitation here is to compare the influence you might have engaging in social media compared to an action you can take in your everyday life on the campus.

Read in a new way. While it seems simple, many academics find reading to be a powerful support in combating outrage fatigue. It’s not just the fact that sinking into a (physical) book over a period of time has a relaxing impact on your brain and thereby reduces stress. But reading about the lives of historical figures whose circumstances were even more challenging than our own gives us examples of people making sense of chaotic times and creating change.

As sociologists, we have found it empowering to read about the perseverance of someone like W. E. B. Du Bois, the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. Despite all of the horrific racist encounters he faced, Du Bois persisted and was able to establish one of the most powerful legacies in American sociology. That someone was able to live through even in the worst of historical moments gives us hope that we, too, can persevere.

Roxane Gay has written about the impact of reading fiction in this particular historical moment. She says it best: “In times of great personal or public upheaval, I turn to reading. I turn to fiction and how writers imagine the world as it is, was, or could be. I am not avoiding reality when I read fiction; I am strengthening my ability to cope with reality. I am allowing myself a much-needed buffer, a place of stillness and quiet. I read fiction to step away from the cacophony of the news and social media and the opinions of others.”

We imagine some of you will feel resistance when reading these suggestions. You might be thinking, there is so much more I can -- and should -- do to help various causes. What we are trying to say is that you will be no good to any cause if you burn out.

And so, may we gently and lovingly suggest that you try one of these experiments over the break to re-energize for January. Our hope is that any one, or a combination of, these strategies will position you to make important contributions to the causes you care about. Not just today or next semester but for many years to come.

Peace and productivity,

Anthony Ocampo, associate professor at California State Polytechnic University and director of campus workshops at the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, founder of the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

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