Information Overload and the Cost of Caring




Confession – as I read or listen to the news I am not feeling much of anything besides tiredness and incompetence. I am embarrasingly disconnected as I watch flooded streets and homes in Texas.

My husband and I were talking about this over the weekend, about our inability to care about everything we hear about; about our ability to self-select newstories and situations that we care about and dismiss the rest. As I filter through news stories I want to care about every tragedy, but it turns out I don’t have the emotional capacity to do that and remain sane.

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 to me 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 that have happened even in the last month, I know immediately why I have compassion/disaster fatigue. News and events transport us from Syria to Charlottesville to Houston and back again. 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 capable of caring about before I move into the disaster fatigue zone? Not very much, it turns out.

Added to this are the things that might not affect the world, but they affect me and my extended family. Family tragedies and crises that make me cry out to God in the night, begging for strength and help for those that I love.

We are overloaded and our minds can’t handle the overload. This in turn leads to apathy, despair, and callous hearts. To compensate, we often update our social media status, just to prove that we really do care, and we expect others to do the same. It’s like wearing a badge of honor; a status symbol of caring.

In the book Amusing Ourselves to Death, the author Neil Postman describes what he calls the “low information to action ration”. He links this concept back to the invention of the telegraph. Before the telegraph people received information that was relevant to their lives, information over which they had a measure of control. After the telegraph, people received information from miles away, information that they could do nothing about. News of wars and tragedies from across the world began to take central stage, while local news took a back page. “the local and the timeless … lost their central position in newspapers, eclipsed by the dazzle of distance and speed … Wars, crimes, crashes, fires, floods—much of it the social and political equivalent of Adelaide’s whooping coughs—became the content of what people called ‘the news of the day'” (pp. 66–67). So a “low information to action ratio” refers to the sense of helplessness we have when faced with information that we can do nothing about.

As Tish Warren says in an excellent article We are small people who, for the most part, live quiet lives, but we have access to endless stories of pain and brokenness.” 

I have been learning something about information overload and the cost of caring over these past years. I have found that I have to exit the noise. I cannot sustain the information overload. It renders me useless in every day life.

despite my huge limitations, a quiet place of contemplation and prayer are far more valuable than distraction and overload

When I give myself permission to exit the noise, when I allow myself to move to a place of quiet, I become healthier and more compassionate. In that quiet space I become far more able to see that despite my huge limitations, a quiet place of contemplation and prayer are far more valuable than distraction and overload.  “Think about it, Mom” says my son “prayer is the highest form of empathy, the greatest act of compassion.” He is wise beyond his years.

Prayer 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

6 thoughts on “Information Overload and the Cost of Caring

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head, Marilyn. I’ve spoken to Mike about my need to “specialize” and and focus on one or two issues/needs that are most compelling (for whatever reasons). We were in a service last Sunday where we were encouraged to turn off the TV/radio, because none of us were made to be able to know everything; however, I struggle to live in the tension of needing enough information to be a responsible citizen and Christ-follower, and not being so immersed that I’m dragged down by it all. Do you resonate with that?


    1. Yes! That is exactly the place I find myself. I had to take myself off twitter except for the quick look every three days. It was too much. I realized when in conversation with someone else that the ratio of what was useful compared to what hurt my soul wasn’t worth it. Along with that is the need to be fully present in my current reality, which is a struggle for an ATCK anyway….
      To another topic – so excited for you all as the third edition of Third Culture Kids comes out!


  2. I echo the grateful words expressed above. It is so easy to carry the heavy burden of our broken world, and we feel guilt when we can’t Your son’s words ring true.. we can pray and pray often, many times over the course of the day if need be , leaving ours and the world’s unspeakable burdens at the cross.


  3. Oh, how true this is, Marilyn! I am watching TV, when Dish functions–it comes and goes when the wind gusts–and seeing lots of caring folks who are out helping rescue people and supply emergency shelters. But I just can’t do it myself, even though my heart would like to, I cannot physically manage it, as chemo is making me weak.
    I am in southwest Houston, and amazingly I still have electricity, can flush my toilet, and have no water in my house. Purely the mercy of the Lord, folks a block away have water in their homes. My family has lived in this house for 52 years, and it has never flooded, but I was fairly sure I would get wet when the water was rising on my street yesterday morning. Still in danger, because while the rain has lessened (approx. 27 inches in 2 days), the rivers and reservoirs north of us are draining down to us. I had about 7 inches of rain overnight, according to the local news. Rain gauges that haven’t floated away have overflowed, so I don’t have an accurate number for my house. I joked with a friend that the only useful rain gauge would need to be a meter high!
    My theme song for Harvey has been Twila Paris singing “God is in control”. It may be from the 90s, but is is very appropriate today.
    Prayer deeply appreciated!


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