Existential Activism

Occupy Wall Street. Photo by David Shankbone.
Occupy Wall Street. Photo by David Shankbone.

At the 2012 Existential-Humanistic Institute Conference, John Galvin presented on the topic of “Existential Activism.” It was a wonderful presentation that led to many interesting thoughts and discussions. Although I have long aspired to being socially responsible, I never considered myself an activist prior to a colleague referring to me as one. When this occurred, I was surprised. My vision of an activist was someone who spent much of their time involved in protests, marches, promoting petitions, and similar activities. I have come to recognize that this is too narrow of a definition of an “activist.”

Prior to Galvin’s presentation, I had given some thought to an existential approach to activism, and even developed a section of a course on socially engaged spirituality relevant to this topic. However, Galvin’s presentation inspired me to give some more thought to this topic.

A Zhi mian-Existential Foundation for Activism
Activism, at its best, is a complex process that is about more than an issue or cause. It is rooted in an honest, direct facing of many interrelated factors. This is represented in the idea of zhi mian, a Chinese concept that means “to face directly.” Zhi mian is a unifying concept that calls for people to face themselves, others, and life directly while emphasizing that facing each one of these requires simultaneous facing of the others.

Facing life directly and honestly is frequently what inspires one to activism. For example, much of the world has turned a blind eye to the horrible conditions in Darfur. When one becomes aware of what is really occurring in Darfur, many feel compelled to speak out for the many who are suffering in this region and begin to take action.

Authentic activism also calls us to face others directly. Too often activism is associated with anger; however, at its best, it is rooted in empathy. There are two aspects of this empathy; however, one is frequently neglected. It is easy to recognize the need for empathy for the individuals who are suffering, but we must also consider the importance of empathy for individuals or groups holding a different perspective that we seek to persuade through our advocacy. Some times this means empathy for the people occupying the role of oppressor. I will speak to this aspect of empathy in more detail shortly.

Existential activism also emphasizes facing oneself directly when engaging in activism. In particular, there are at least two important considerations of this aspect of zhi mian. First, it is important to consider why one is drawn to the particular issue and the motivation for advocating for it. Individuals often are drawn to be an activist for causes that are close to their heart. While people are often more effective advocating for issues they are passionate about, it is easy for this to cloud one’s judgment at times. Regular, honest self-reflection is vital in being an effective activist.

Second, it is necessary to face oneself directly regarding what one hopes to achieve through activism. It is easy for egos to get intertwined with causes, especially when one begins gaining some recognition for his or her activism. Shifting the focus from advocating for a cause to promoting oneself impedes effectiveness and often introduces some destructive elements.

Activism without an Enemy

What is the ideal for mental health, then? A lived, compelling illusion that does not lie about life, death, and reality; one honest enough to follow its own commandments: I mean, not to kill, not to take the lives of others to justify itself. (Becker, 1973, p. 204)

This quote by Ernest Becker is challenging for activism, especially if we interpret “kill” metaphorically. Activism tends to be activism against something, someone, or some group. In the discussion following Galvin’s presentation, I commented that there is a big difference between an activism for something, as opposed to an activism against something. When advocating against, too often we quickly turn those who we are advocating against into the enemy. We assume negative motives, we disconnect from our empathy, and we blind our self to any counter arguments that may be valid. As Sam Keen (1991) states, “In the beginning, we create the enemy. Before the weapon comes the image. We think others to death and then invent the battle-axe or ballistic missiles with which to actually kill them. Propaganda precedes technology” (p. 198). Keen goes on to state that the true heroes are those who can look inside themselves, acknowledging their own shadow elements and potential for evil. This skill is necessary for the activist.

Existential activism should be rooted in a bold empathy, one that is courageous enough to take an empathic approach to the oppressor as well as the victim. When this approach is taken, it helps the activist have greater sensitivity and wisdom when engaging those who disagree with our perspective on the cause we are advocating for.

Politics provides many examples of this. As is evident, there are good people on both (or many) sides of most political issues. Yet, in contemporary partisan politics, the tendency is to assume negative motivations on the part of those who disagree with our viewpoint and quickly turn them into the enemy instead of partners with a different perspective about how to improve conditions in our country. This is too easy. Furthermore, this stance is not one that is effective in most situations.

Activists are called to go beyond selective empathy, to engaging the world with an empathic stance. This is not to say there are not times when it is necessary to condemn individuals, groups, or acts as evil. Clearly, there are times to advocate against. However, this is not our first calling. Our first calling it to understand empathically, to allow people and groups to be innocent until proven guilty, and to seek change through compassion before condemnation.

Systemic Understanding
Although existential psychology has not always given adequate attention to systemic issues, it is important to do so when considering existential activism. Activism always occurs in a context, and good activism should always take into consideration how best to advocate within a particular context.

I worry that activism too often seeks extremist ends without an openness to compromise. It has a tendency to seek big changes in quick time frames. Often, this is not how effective change occurs within a system. When change occurs too quickly or too radically, it can create a lack of stability that can, in some instances, be ineffective and even dangerous. Of course, there are also times when quick or radical change is what is necessary. Yet, often the most successful forms of activism will promote a gradual, sustained change over time that allows for compromise and respects the interconnected, complex systemic issues.

Content and Process
In psychotherapy, we often separate content from process. The same is important when considering activism. Existential activism can inform both content and process. It helps us identify important causes, but it can also help us give consideration as to how to go about activism.

Learning to be an effective activist is challenging and complex in ways quite similar to becoming an effective psychotherapist. There is a great deal of knowledge needed that must be continually updated in order to be an effective activist. There are also challenging interpersonal and leadership skills, and a broader awareness of the interplay between individual, group, and larger social systems, which need to be developed and refined over time. I am thankful for places like Saybrook University, and their Social Transformation Concentration, that helps prepare individuals for this complex calling.

Existential activism is bold enough to speak the truth and, when necessary, confront evil while remaining compassionate enough not to create enemies through disagreement. It is honest enough to recognize when our motivations shift from our ego to our heart and when our own issues may harm our cause. Existential activism is audacious enough to take an empathic stance toward various sides and individuals involved with the issue, not just those who share our perspective. It is courageous enough to continually confront ourselves as we confront others. Existential activism is patient enough to let change gradually unfold and wise enough to adjust our approach to activism to the context. Finally, existential activism is humble enough to always remember the root of activism is beyond us.


Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Keen, S. (1991). The enemy maker. In C. Zweig & J. Abrams (Eds.), Meeting the shadow: The hidden power of the dark side of human nature (pp. 197-201). New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.

— Louis Hoffman

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