Todd and I were talking about out political/organizational work a while ago and said to me “you’re going to be doing this for the rest of your life” and it sort of drew me up short. I guess it’s true. I hadn’t really thought of that, at least not for quite a while. I liked the thought at the time. There are also days when I wouldn’t welcome that thought so much, when it would feel more like being sentenced. (Along similar lines, my friend Chuck once told me when I was frustrated with something that my main goal should be “make 25 replacements of yourself, then die happy.”)

I’ve been feeling worn out and down in many ways for quite some time. I wrote some of this in a letter to another friend and comrade tonight. After I finished I felt better (writing can be cleansing, especially handwriting). I suddenly remembered the time I saw Utah Phillips perform and got to meet him. Among what he played was a song which had as part of its refrain the lines “building in a ship, may never sail on it, gonna build it anyway.” That’s an important sensibility.

One of the difficulties (but not the only one) in the political/organizational work I mostly do – mostly trainings and administrative stuff – is that the pay offs don’t come quickly and often happen elsewhere out of my direct sight/experience. This is quite different from helping organize a demonstration and seeing it go off big, or a job action. I’d like to think this work is more important but I don’t really think it is (well, it’s probably more important than demonstrations and probably less important than job actions), I think it’s more like one and only piece in a sort of political ecosystem where several elements depend on each other, and move at different paces.

This is part of why I don’t really sympathize with calls to make politics feel good or to be joyful. Obviously this stuff should have enjoyable and/or joyful elements, but that’s a different matter. I’m told that Mao said ‘the revolution is not a dinner party,’ and that is an important point. Political work can be hard and trying and tiring and involve sacrifices. Cooking dinner for your partner can be a pain in the neck, likewise washing dishes, and being there for someone emotionally. Those are necessary things and need to be done. I recognize the gendered dimension to these tasks as well as the problematic elements to invoking or calling for the need to sacrifice. I have never liked calls to sacrifice, even the passing reference to sacrifice in Walter Benjamin’s theses on the philosophy of history puts me off and I very much like that text. I also recognize the particularly problematic nature of the link between the gender of my examples and the traditional sacrifices demanded of women; I don’t want to replaying the typical gender of sacrifices (though I do think there is something to respecting the power and strength of women who did and do make those sacrifices, provided that does not mean a lapse of feminist critical faculties). Still, I think the point is simple and simply valid: many things worth doing are hard and are not immediately rewarding. To not do them because they are not immediately rewarding is not justifiable. May never sail on it.

Outside the performance I told Utah that his music was a big part of my introduction to all this stuff, and that I had really enjoyed talking with him and hearing his stories. He said thank you and asked me how old I was. He said something like “I was your age when I met the people who got me into all this, and they were about my age now. Someday you’ll be my age and will be getting new people into all this.” It was (and is) a sobering thing to say, and definitely felt (and feels) like shoes I can’t fill. It’s also an important reminder to think (very) long term: Utah was I think 73 when I met him. I will be 30 in about 2 weeks or so.

All this ties in to my being burnt out in two ways. On the one hand, I need to make sure I do not burn out entirely, so that I can continue to play a role, a positive one I mean, for the (very) long term. On the other hand, the point in the song is important, that this is not about an expectation of immediate returns – or, in the case of the line in the song and Utah’s own passing, an expectation of any return at all, at least in what we might call a world-historical sense, that is, in the sense of seeing the really big goals accomplished. I find that a useful reminder, and is part of what I like about the ethical bits of Alain Badiou’s philosophy, the main point of which he says is “keep going.” I’m told Becket says somewhere something like “Can’t go on, must go on, I’ll go on.” Cultivate the will to continue and the habit of continuing such that the crisis of either does not prevent continuing (and hope that there’s not a simultaneous breakdown of both). Gonna build it anyway.