Activism, Storytelling,
and Burnout

A Conversation with Gareth Higgins

Gareth Higgins is a long-time friend of many at unRival, and took part in the inaugural cohort of our Artisans of Peace program. He is a gifted and engaging storyteller, immersed in Celtic spirituality and Irish culture, and trained for decades on the insights of cinema, literature, and the way stories shape our experience of reality. He is also an incisive scholar and peacebuilder, spending many years on the front lines of Northern Ireland’s peace process.

Gareth is a prolific writer, collecting some of his most enduring learning into the book How Not to be Afraid, and at “Soul Telegram” he continues to analyze film and pop culture for ways of telling a new, nonviolent story of humanity’s future together. 

It was after his timely review of the film Barbie that Lyle Enright caught up with Gareth to discuss storytelling, the myth of redemptive violence, and how the intensity of our convictions can be as much a curse as a blessing in our activism. Gareth has spent much of his life thinking about the “whats” of activism and storytelling; in these excerpts from his and Lyle’s conversation, he turns to the “hows” of contemplation and well-being.

This content has been edited for length and clarity.

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

I read your Substack about Barbie! And about some of the rethinking you’ve been doing around storytelling and activism – your reorientation towards how more than what. Could you say more about that?

Headshot of Gareth Higgins
Gareth

After his death, a friend of Robin Williams, the actor and Buddhist priest Peter Coyote, said Robin [as a comedian] was like a supremely amazing athlete who had the best bicep in the world on one of his arms. But he never worked out the rest of his body, because people would praise his [comedy] all the time: “Oh my God, Robin, that thing you have is just incredible. Give us more, give us more!” Nobody ever said to Robin, “Hey man, I think your bicep is too big, and the rest of you is out of shape.”

I don’t know if that’s completely true of Robin Williams, but this kind of thing can be a problem for any of us. When your wound is also the thing that gives birth to your gift, and everybody wants to see and applaud the gift, but the expression of your gift is potentially bad for you.

In a similar way, I used to think the ultimate goal was to come up with a better story–more truthful, more helpful. What I think now is that the ultimate goal has  not so much with the what but with the how, with the telling, the way of being. With presence. Frankly, you can tell the best stories in the world, but if you’re not coming from a place of ever-deepening presence, you will never live. We know lots of stories about great artists and leaders who, behind the scenes, were either terribly broken, or they were abusive to others. 

I think there’s a parallel with activism: the more you divorce activism from contemplation, the more likely you are to experience burnout and schism within your movement. Activism, contemplation, extravagance, play, joy, all those things are fundamentally necessary for a healthy life. For a true life. All the great wisdom traditions that human beings have uncovered point out that you’re supposed to have some portion of your life where you’re just enjoying things. Otherwise, what’s the point?

"The more you divorce activism from contemplation, the more likely you are to experience burnout and schism within your movement."

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

Part of “play” is not taking things so seriously, which is hard to do as an activist. Everything feels so urgent. Party lines feel so real. But being “playful” means playing across those party lines, too, right? Almost shrugging off the polarization?

Headshot of Gareth Higgins
Gareth

It’s part of why the labels of left and right don’t work for me anymore. You could say my position on care for the earth is conservative! My position on reducing gun homicide rates is conservative because it requires nurturing stronger community bonds. And I’m progressive when it comes to social and economic inequality because that also correlates with reducing gun homicide rates. 

To me, it’s about serving the common good. It’s about happiness. It’s something I just find astonishing, that in the national political culture of the US there’s almost no talk about serving the common good by finding common ground. Even the most secular US American conservatives believe in the pursuit of happiness. And the most faithful progressive Christian is supposed to believe in a teacher who said, “I’ve come that you might have life and have it in full.” We invoke things like “Be The Change You Want to See” as oppositional activist statements, but we need to add to that: “Live the Joy.” Live the contemplation, embody the peace in our communities. 

There seems to be more space for that, lately. And I’m also getting better, I hope, at communicating what I deeply believe with people: that the myth of redemptive violence–the myth that violence cleanses the world to bring order out of chaos– is foundational to how we have misunderstood what it means to build a culture and community. We think we’re learning [that in Northern Ireland], or we’re trying to learn, and I want to invite other people into that. I also want to understand where they’re coming from. It’s not rocket science; it actually does help build bridges and reduce the animus of your political others.

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

Do you think activists tend to whip themselves into an unnecessarily “oppositional” mentality? Does that kill the imagination or wellbeing of a movement?

Headshot of Gareth Higgins
Gareth

I fear the culture of activism is a little like the culture of rampant capitalism, because rampant capitalism forces you to always be producing. And rampant activism does the same thing. “Be a productive agent of Insert cause here.” And I do think the life of Jesus is really instructive here, if indeed he didn’t do much until he was 30. I assume he was thinking and praying a lot and learning, but part of what he was learning was the craft of carpentry. He was making tables.

If we were really tuned into the teachings we wish to follow, we would probably see it’s not all about doing some great good. Beautiful things for their own sake are actually the heart. And sure, there are emergencies in which we need to respond urgently. I just don’t think it’s useful to assert that any given emergency is the worst emergency ever. Yeah it’s real, and we need to contend with it, but competitive suffering doesn’t produce effective activism.

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

Do you think this culture of “competitive suffering” coincides with a loss of faith in our institutions? When no one really has clout anymore, urgency seems to be the only justification. The worse the emergency, the more authority you claim.

Headshot of Gareth Higgins
Gareth

Yep. I think that’s spot on. Part of that’s a widespread diminution in our idea of what power and authority deserve, what authority deserves in terms of risk back from the people. One of the paradoxes we live with is that the people who are ostensibly in authority today occupy positions–like the US presidency–that don’t have the same gravitas they once did. Nobody thinks anybody with their hand on the tiller has credibility to be there. I think Trumpism is about wanting that back, about wanting a savior. People are afraid, and fear breeds anger; it’s a recursive relationship. 

The paradox is that the diminution of blind respect for authority has been accompanied by a rise in the possibility of public vulnerability, which is necessary for a less violent world. People in authority can speak about their own crises of conscience or uncertainty. I’m not saying you regularly get presidential press conferences in which people say, “I don’t have a clue what I’m doing.” But I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a national level politician with credibility say something like, “Folks, we’re all friggin’ exhausted here. We’re all traumatized. Sometimes we just don’t know what to do. If you vote for me, I promise I’ll try my best.” 

"That’s a problem. When your wound is also the thing that gives birth to your gift, and everybody wants to see and applaud the gift, but the expression of your gift is potentially bad for you."

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

Since we started by talking about the “hows” of storytelling and activism, how do you think people become open to hearing those sorts of messages? What stories can we tell that might reorient us away from urgency and authority and towards the common good?

Headshot of Gareth Higgins
Gareth

Some people really need to have the awfulness pointed out to them in a graphic, horrifying way. I know a story of a guy who was imprisoned in the Soviet Union and tortured because of anti-Christian prejudice. He told his story, and someone in the audience started heckling him and saying they didn’t believe he’d been tortured. They thought it was a scam. If memory serves, the guy responded by taking his shirt off on stage and showing the scars on his back, saying, “Do you believe me now?” Sometimes that can really work.

On the other hand, I’ve been reading Thomas Merton’s letters, and he says that, sometimes, the provocations of nonviolence make things worse in the short term. The spirit of violence is so sub-rational, so rooted in shame mechanisms, that to confront someone with the realities of what they believe might actually result in them killing you.

People need to trust the storyteller. They need a point of identification. You have to discern when you’re going to use sugar and when you’re going to use vinegar, but in any kind of format, you’ve got to replace the old story with a better one. It’s pretty rare that you can just tell people out loud, “Hey, there’s this myth of redemptive violence and we shouldn’t believe it anymore.” That doesn’t actually work.

You don’t have to state everything up front. You don’t have to resolve everything in one story. It goes back to where we started: the contemplative edge in all religions is the place where they have the most in common because they’re asking the biggest questions, usually through these small, profound stories about love and forgiveness. I think Marvel movies are ethically better than a lot of people given them credit for, but they’re not as good as they should be because they’re mind-blowingly difficult to keep up with. There’s 700 main characters. Whereas Wonder Women 1984–the greatest film of the last 50 years as we all know (laughs)–is about one person. Two or three people, really. It’s one of the reasons I think Oppenheimer is so good; it’s about one guy that nearly destroys the world and feels bad about it later. Give me [more of] that.

"Wouldn’t that be a wonderful experiment? To simply love your neighbor as yourself? What would it be like to just tell the truth for a week? And, as part of that truth, to say, I don’t know the answer to everything."

Portrait of Lyle Enright
Lyle

One of my problems with Marvel movies is that they don’t end, either! There’s always a new sequel, a new spin-off. It feels odd to say that a story can overstay its welcome. But I feel like one big thing we’re losing in modern storytelling is the closure that comes with an ending. Does that apply to peacebuilding, too?

Headshot of Gareth Higgins
Gareth

There’s a tension there, because there isn’t closure in ordinary life. Yet at the same time, every day ends, and we go to sleep. Technology has taken away our rhythm, our sense of time. There’s no threshold anymore between one thing and the next, no sense of new beginnings, or of completion. 

I think people need to be helped with that today, in the most gracious ways possible. We need to find ways to be honest about the necessary and useful closures–one chapter ending, a new chapter beginning. 

And the thing is, you never know that a story is over, especially when you’re in it. That’s why I think it’s better to focus on uncertainty. That’s one way you’re going to reduce violence. Lethal violence can usually only happen when people have certainty–or feel they need certainty, because they’re terrified without it. This can lead to despair, to more conspiracy theories–or it can be a portal towards faith and love. 

Life is always going to be uncertain. If that’s the case, the things we can most credibly be certain about are the things we should pursue. Things like, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and Love your neighbor as yourself. These are time-honored, if not time-tested. By which I mean, people have said these things for years but haven’t practiced them.

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful experiment? To simply love your neighbor as yourself? What would it be like to just tell the truth for a week? And, as part of that truth, to say, I don’t know the answer to everything.

To keep up with Gareth’s events and work, click here for his official website. You can read more from Gareth in his book, How Not to Be Afraid, and at the Substack Soul Telegram: Movies and Meaning

If you enjoyed this interview, consider the following blog posts:

Want to learn more about how unRival Network and the Artisans of Peace program are disrupting rivalry and advancing the cause of justice and peace? Click here to access our free resource, Peace is Possible.

Hold onto hope with us.


When we resist rivalry together, there is hope for peace.

By contributing as little as $25, you join us in supporting peacebuilders who are bringing creative solutions to the world’s toughest problems. Your donation funds leadership formation programs, research, and resources for those resisting rivalry with you.