Confessions of Compassion Fatigue

Confession – as I listen to the radio I am not feeling much of anything besides tiredness and incompetence. A tsunami in Japan has taken the lives of over 10,000 people and caused a nuclear crisis and I am sitting at work figuring out how to spend the remainder of our significant educational budget for a preventive health program on something that matters. Ouch.

In the 1950’s a new word made it into our lexicon of trauma related diagnoses. The word was “Compassion Fatigue” and was first seen in nurses. As a nurse, it makes sense that we were the people who first displayed a tendency towards these symptoms.  The symptoms included negativity, lessening of compassion, tiredness, and feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and inadequacy for the job at hand. It was the ‘cost of caring’.

The word has evolved over time and is often called ‘Disaster Fatigue’. Used by the media and donor organizations to describe the response to tragedies and world events over time, it gives an accurate picture without having to be explained.  Events that have such massive implications that our brains can’t quite take it in and our responses show a disconnect between what we see and hear and how our hearts and bank accounts respond.

If I list off the events from August 2010 until now I know immediately why I have compassion fatigue. News and events have transported us from Pakistan to the Middle East to Japan and includes floods, revolutions and tsunamis. Every aspect of human need has been affected. The need for shelter, security, food, safety, and the list goes on so that self-actualization seems laughable. The pain and shock of people and nations are felt across oceans and continents creating a sort of secondary trauma zone. How much am I as a human capable of caring before I move into the disaster fatigue zone? Not very much it turns out.

Guilt threatens to overtake me, making me less likely to move back to a place of caring and concern and instead move me to an avoidance that perpetuates my apathetic state.

So now that I’ve confessed in the blogosphere for everyone to see, what answers do I have? How do I encourage myself or any potential reader?

Only this – that the promising piece of working through compassion fatigue is allowing myself to be moved to a place of quiet but important humility of my place in this big world. In that quiet space I become far more able to see that I have huge limitations, I make mistakes and I do things out of self advancement and not true compassion. Rather than discouraging me, this recognition ultimately leads me to a reliance on a God who “will not grow tired or weary, and whose understanding no one can fathom” and in the comfort of those age-old words, I can lose the guilt and rely on a never-ending resource of compassion and strength, available to all in crisis.

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. Isaiah 40:28

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16 thoughts on “Confessions of Compassion Fatigue

    1. Sophie – just looked at your blog – love love it! Your heart shines through your writing and is completely relatable. Your random thoughts post took me back to when our kids were little, money was much tighter, and we were building a home and family so thank you!


      1. ahhh thanks for your comment on the blog. I have been wondering of late if anyone at all is reading it! Thanks for stopping by!


  1. You have just said here what I have felt often. When the war began in Iraq I used to be glued to the TV crying for Americans and Iraqis equally, I wrote poems on them and expressed my anguish in so many ways, I don’t know at what point I stopped watching but still kept talking about it, then I stopped talking about it and finally stopped thinking about it. I just could not handle it anymore. The suicide bombings, the innocent people killed it was too much to take.
    There is so much happening in the world, one helps on what level one can, but we are but human and I don’t think we are really expected to do more than we can.
    We wake up these days and have no idea what news is waiting for us. After a day or so after the initial shock my brain reaches a point when it cannot take the anguish anymore. I don’t think it means a lack of compassion perhaps just the opposite, too much compassion where the pain of strangers whose names I may not know or whose faces I will never see, becomes my personal pain and I think for my own sanity my brain shuts off. I think that probably also happens to many others.
    There is often not much we can do except pray, and pray we must. After all God is All Powerful and all He has to do is say ‘Be’ and it is.
    Today is Friday, the Islamic Sabbath, it is also time for Jumah prayers. I will just add my prayer here for Peace, for stability, and safety of all humans everywhere on Earth. May God help us all and keep us safe.


    1. That is a very good point Pari – not as you put it “lack of compassion” but just the opposite – “too much compassion”. And our limitations both intellectually and emotionally to bear all these burdens – a reminder that we were not created to bear all these burdens but we are created to pray. Thanks for the great reminder. I hope your day is one of peace and rest. I miss having our day of rest on Friday! Both Pakistan and Egypt got us used to that schedule and it was a challenge readjusting.


  2. THANK YOU for this timely reminder…..add to world conditions our own personal ones…..friends who lost their 31-yr. old soldier son in Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago; another friend in his early 50’s died of cancer Sunday night leaving a grieving wife, children, and grandchild; friends suffering from broken marriages, pain from childhood, prodigal children…. Right now I just want to withdraw into my own little world… I so need the reminder that I need to rely on Him so that I don’t get tired and quit.
    (from a fellow Pakistan MK)


    1. I’m so glad you read and commented. I feel the collective pain you write about that can so overwhelm that we want to create our own fire escape. So glad to hear you too are an MK from Pakistan – there were many things modeled well for me within that context and one of them was knowing the one who doesn’t grow weary or faint.


  3. Well written Marilyn. This is something that our family was just talking about the other night. With all the disasters in the last year it makes you feel guilty to have “normalcy”. Our family conversation started out on movies, moved to Japan, and ended up in Revelations.


    1. Oh beautifully said Judy. One of the things I have thought about is how I sometimes want to induce guilt in others when they are not fully engaged in “my crisis” only to realize that I am at the same place depending on the crisis. It brings about interesting moments of confession and moving forward!


  4. “But those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint.” Teach me Lord to wait. A very timely and thoughtful blog, Marilyn. Thanks.


  5. Tiredness and incompetence. Tiredness and helplessness. Just plain tired some days. You have pointed, rightfully, to the Good News! God will not grow tired or weary, either of the world or of hiding us under pinions or lifting us up on eagle’s wings. Thank you. It’s a good day to be reminded!


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