Matt was interviewed by Laura Gilmartin after completing the workshop Avoiding Burnout with Theo Kitchener in April 2017.
Matt Wicking is a musician and facilitator who supports groups making positive, progressive change. He is a singer-songwriter with Melbourne band The General Assembly, facilitator of the Future Makers Fellowship, and runs his own freelance facilitation practice for good causes, Cloud Catcher.
How do you use music in your activism and have you found music useful in your own self-care?
Music is such a big part of my life – listening, writing and performing. I guess it’s not surprising it’d also play a role in my activism. As I move through my life, I’m finding more and more ways that music is powerful, useful and important. Activism and self-care are definitely two spaces where that’s the case.
The most obvious application for music in activism might be to perform at a rally or sing at a gathering of people who are doing or planning their own activism. There’s an obvious role for music in building community, deepening the emotion of the event and helping to create some magic in that moment. I’ve done some of that stuff and am keen to do more. You can also use music as a way of gathering community together around an issue and raising money for that issue – like a fundraising gig.
Beyond those kinds of uses, though, I feel like the general population doesn’t have a good understanding of how powerful and beautiful it can be, personally, to have a creative practice, so I’m a massive advocate for that. I often hear people say they’re not creative, but if you go back thousands of years and imagine humans around a campfire, telling stories and singing or dancing, people may have had different roles, but no one ever said ‘oh, I’m not creative, I’ll sit out’. It’s a strange modern phenomenon to think that creativity is for some people to do and not others. I see the powerful impact it has for me in my life and I want other people to find that too. For me, it’s a way of processing my feelings and emotions around what’s it like to be a human living in 2017 – well, to be me actually – and experiencing the world and all that’s happening to it from environmental crisis to social change and upheaval to a quickening of technology and cultural change, some of which is positive and some of which is downright scary. What do you do with that? There’s a lots of things you can do – you can reflect, you can meditate, you can talk to others who are going through the same stuff. I see music and poetry and creative pursuits as another way of less rationally processing that stuff and sitting with it and finding a way into it and through it.
The music I write is often about connection to nature, sadness about aspects of what’s happening around me in the world and things like that. But in all of that it’s also about then finding beauty in that or a story that connects – and that others can connect with. It’s also just downright fun, and that’s fucking important. I’ve made music for more than 20 years, and it’s only now that I’m going, ‘oh this is really powerful and important in my life’. I didn’t look around and think ‘What can I use to be more resilient?’ and decide music was scientifically proven to be good so I went with that. I got into bands when I was younger but it’s only the last five years in particular I’ve started to get a sense of the potential power of it for personal health, community-building and processing complex stuff.
Has there been a specific point at which you realised you would need to take steps to ensure your mental and/or physical and emotional health while you were engaging in activism?
I’m very open about the fact I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression at certain times in my life, but most notably a few years ago. At its mildest it was a low-level dissociation from my own life – a numbness to the magic and beauty of things. I stopped reading and stopped listening to and enjoying new music (which is a pretty major thing for someone like me). I was high-functioning but wasn’t getting much out of experiences that otherwise normally I might have and then, at its worst, on a few days not being able to leave the house. My partner at the time was very supportive in helping me through that. It was tough and it was partly brought about by a real moment of coming to terms with loss and grief about environmental damage that’s unfolding. And needing to find ways to be able to sit with that and be okay with it. I’ve done a whole bunch of stuff for myself that’s helped with that. I’ve sporadically done yoga and mindfulness that comes and goes and I know it’s really good for me when I do it. If I’m honest, I’m partly saying it to you now to encourage myself to get back into it!
I swim and try to do that a few times a week. That used to come and go but now I’ve hooked up with some friends to go as swimming buddies that’s made me more dedicated and consistent. I’m pretty active in general. I ride around town and I know exercise is a huge thing. You’ll never read a study that says exercise is bad for your health. I mean, obviously if you’re ninety years old, you might not be up for a marathon but finding the right exercise for you, your body, your mind and what you enjoy, helps with everything. It makes you smarter and more able to focus, it levels your mood and eases any darkness you might be struggling with. It makes you a better friend and a better lover. We know this. Science tells us this. Our bodies are supposed to move. For me it’s finding whatever ways I can do that consistently, to move my body in positive ways.
There seems to be more efforts now to create space for grieving climate change effects. How did you create space for yourself to grieve environmental destruction and perhaps apathy on the part of politicians and lawmakers, and how did you come out the other side of that?
When I was younger I started to become aware of it and started to feel a passion and a pull towards doing something about it, learning more. And then I started to get frustrated and angry. And I’m not an angry person. I’m pretty chilled and happy but inside I felt pissed off that not just politicians but the average person wouldn’t or couldn’t see what was happening and wouldn’t or couldn’t do something about it – take even the smallest of personal actions.
And then as I started to take action myself I could see the beautiful benefits that could come from taking those actions. We often see moving toward a more sustainable world and culture as some sort of sacrifice or compromise and losing out or missing out on something, but I know that personally every step I’ve taken toward being more sustainable has been incredible for me. It’s really easy to see not owning a car, for instance, as causing an inconvenience but I’ll argue with anyone that riding a bike is the best way to get around – it’s fun, it’s good for your heart. It’s dynamite. On clear, calm nights it’s beautiful and magical and I wouldn’t have access to that if I was driving.
I guess ultimately I was never satisfied with feeling that frustration and anger, it didn’t feel very productive. I wanted the significance of the crisis to push me forward more passionately and bravely if anything, not to crush or swamp me. And I did find it starting to make me small and squash me a bit, and I think over the last few years I’m learning to ask for help, to surround myself with good people and to believe again in the value of community. Another aspect of the world we live in that I want to move away from is individualism – the inclination to see ourselves as solo units on a journey of self-development and competition for success and limited resources. If I see myself in that way I might be inclined to not reach out and not lean on people because it’s a sign of weakness and an imposition. But actually I’ve learned that asking for help is a gift to the person you ask. It’s inviting them into your world. That’s beautiful. It’s not easy but it can really deepen and enrich relationships and help you through and back out the other side.
My work has been really powerful as well. Running the Future Makers Fellowship is very inspiring. Each year 25 people do that eight month program with me. We do retreats and workshops and coaching and I get very buoyed by their enthusiasm, their passion, their creativity and their willingness to support each other and the changes they make for themselves and their communities, even just in that eight months, let alone the years that follow as they come out of it together. It’s pretty hard while I’m running that program for me to stay in too negative a place for too long! It’s been around for a decade and this is my fourth year running it. I’ve really loved that experience. I did it myself as a participant in 2012 and it was a shifting moment for me in terms of moving myself toward a life that I believe in and finding more space for my music and so on.
You mentioned your grief around climate change involved anger and frustration toward people, not just lawmakers. Did moving on from that experience involve an element of forgiveness of people?
For sure. Some of my best friends are human – and I’m also one myself, so it was absolutely essential! Compassion is, I guess, the word that’s probably most appropriate. I’m not perfect – far from it and there’s lots of things that if someone who was more socially aware, more experienced, more of a greenie than I, they would look at me and perhaps feel frustrated or angry that I wasn’t going deeper or doing more. So to be able to look at others and think they’re doing the best they can with what they’ve got and to have some compassion for that is critical for me. The important balance for me in there is that I’m not saying ‘Well, everything is as it should be and so there it is’. I’m still not satisfied with where things are at. I’m satisfied with being compassionate and understanding that where people are right now is them doing the best they can with what they’ve got but I’m not satisfied with that being good enough for the next step. Because the science is crystal clear. Maybe things aren’t changeable or solvable or fixable but I’m keen to try – I like that idea.
As things get crunchier in the future, let’s say climate change effects worsen or climate change refugees seek homes elsewhere or politics shifts to the right further, I want whatever work I’m doing to make sense now and even if the worst happens I want it to still make sense. And I think looking after yourself and looking after your community and helping people who are fighting for positive change to do so in a healthy and a happy way is always going to be good, useful work. And if we are able to stave off the worst of climate change and pull things toward a healthy trajectory then wonderful, and helping people to do that and head towards that brighter future in a healthy, happy way without burnout is great.
Thank you Matt for sharing your experiences and learnings with activists in the PTT network!