Building a Ship

Building a Ship

Nate Hawthorne briefly goes over the topic of burnout, looking at it from a perspective of long-term and short-term.

I recently stepped down from an international officer position in the IWW. In thinking about this, I remembered something I wanted to share.

I feel lucky to have had the privilege to meet Fellow Worker Utah Phillips before he died. FW Phillips sang a song with the refrain, “building a ship/ may never sail on it/ gonna build it anyway.” That’s an important idea.

“Building a ship.”

The IWW is a sort of ecosystem where several elements depend on each other, and move at different paces. Trainings and administrative work are the main things I do in the IWW now. This is important, but it’s hard because the payoffs don’t come quickly and often happen elsewhere, out of my direct sight/experience. This is different from helping organize a picket or a job action or moving a coworker in a one-on-one.

On a personal note, I’m happy to report that my wife is pregnant and that our daughter is due to be born at the end of August. I am very excited to meet my daughter and to raise her. At the same time, I know parenting will involve being stressed, missing sleep, being afraid, and a lot of hard work. Along the same lines, I used to think that revolutionary activity should always be joyful or make us feel good. I no longer feel that way. Obviously, this stuff should have enjoyable and/or joyful elements, at least sometimes, but that’s a different matter. The work we need to do is often hard, trying, tiring and involves sacrifices. Many things worth doing are hard and are not immediately rewarding. But it is unjustifiable not to do them because they are a challenge—and this applies to parenting too. It’s both rewarding and really hard at the same time.

“May never sail on it.”

I told FW Phillips that his music and stories were a big part of my introduction to the IWW, and that I had really enjoyed talking with him and hearing his stories. He said thank you. He said something like, “I was your age when I met the people who got me into all this, and they were about the age I am now. Someday you’ll be my age and will be getting new people into all this.” It was a sobering thing to say, and definitely felt like shoes I can’t fill. It’s also an important reminder to think long term: Utah was, I think, 73 when I met him. I had just turned 30.

All this ties in to the reasons I decided to step down. In short, I was—and am—feeling burnt out. On the one hand, I need to make sure I do not burn out entirely, so that I can continue to play a somewhat positive role for the long term. On the other hand, what the song says is important. This stuff is not about immediate returns—or, at least, not about being able to see our really big goals accomplished. I find that to be a useful reminder. This work matters. We have to keep doing it. Right now, hanging in for the long term means stepping back for the short term, taking on less in order to be able to accomplish the things I am doing in the IWW.

“Gonna build it anyway.”

Originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of the Industrial Worker