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

What if Real Life Begins at the Moment of Compassion


“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”*

In early spring, we had a group of college and seminary students sitting around our living room after dinner. Our conversation was rich and life-giving, full of thoughtful opinions and ideas. At one point during the evening, we began to talk about abortion. One of our guests quoted his professor at seminary: “Life begins at the moment of compassion.” The teacher is an ethics professor who is affectionately known as “Dr. Tim.”

The quote has stayed with me. On the one hand, I love it. On the surface, compassion is easy for me. I tend to naturally have compassion for people. It’s what led me into becoming a nurse, it’s been honed through the years in developing countries and refugee camps. I have exercised compassion at the beds of dying patients and in the exam rooms of those who have just received a diagnosis of cancer.

But below the surface, it’s a lot more difficult. Because I subconsciously and consciously choose who is worthy of my compassion. If I am honest, I believe that some situations are worthy of compassion, and others are not. Some people are worthy, others are decidedly not worthy. I may sit at the bedside of a cancer patient, and cry with them, extending compassion and love. It’s far harder to sit at the bed of an alcoholic who is dying of esophageal varices brought on by lifestyle choices and extend that same compassion.

We humans are a complex and stubborn people. We rage about one thing, and turn our backs on another something equally disturbing. We pick the things that are most important to us and we guard those ideas and values with all of our energy and words.

Holding fast to our truth claims is critically important. In a world that changes on a whim, it is important to know not only what we believe, but why we believe it. But in all that energy we use to defend our views, we forget to add one of the most important ingredients – compassion.

What if we made sure that even when others disagree with us, they will see that we don’t hold a view to be vindictive or ugly or mean. What if we make sure that others hear compassion in everything we say, see compassion in everything we do?

What if we expended as much energy on compassion as we do on framing our well crafted and articulated beliefs? 

I think about the life of Christ, and his interactions with broken people. His was a ministry of compassion. Scripture tells us that “He saw the crowds and had compassion on them.” We see him stop in the middle of the street and ask “Who touched me?” relentlessly pursuing a woman who had touched him, desperate for healing. Instead of condemning a promiscuous woman at a well, he dug deeper and challenged her that he could offer her something to quench her thirst and fill her soul. His was a blind men see, dead men walk, deaf man hear, dead are raised, good news for the poor ministry. His words, his work, his life were filled with compassion for the human condition.

Perhaps true compassion is a result of a perfect blend of grace and truth. Jesus knew the truth about sin and poor choices, but he saw through the behavior to the expressed need behind the behavior – and in compassion he offered something so much better. 

As I write this, I think about a picture I saw this past week. It was a family picture. My niece and her husband with their children — my brother and sister-in-law on one side of them, her husband’s parents on the other side. Typical family picture – but there was nothing typical about it. There in the center was the baby they have had as a foster child for the past year. They took the picture in celebration of her adoption into the family. My niece and her husband’s life changed when they decided to take seriously the words that grow tiresome when they are not lived out: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” 

In taking those words seriously, a little baby came into their lives. While the goal of fostering children is reunification with the birth parents as much as possible, in this case, it wasn’t possible. And so they adopted her. There she is, all smiley, chubby baby, adopted into a family that chose compassion.

What if life, real life, begins at the moment of compassion?

“So he replied to the messengers, ‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.'” Luke 7:22

*Matthew 9:36

A Comparison that Kills

grief comparison

A Comparison that Kills by Robynn

I suppose there are two types of people when it comes to pain: those who exaggerate their woes and wounds and those who downplay them. Although I’m a self-proclaimed wimp* and my pain tolerance is low I tend to be one of the ones that sweeps her own pain away. I’m not talking about the pain that comes when I stub my toe, or when I have a headache, or a sore knee. I’m rarely quiet about those types of pains. The pain I tend to minimize is the stubbed spirit, the heartache, and the sore soul.

Somewhere along the line I learned to compare my pain to the hurts of others and mine always came out lower, lesser. I’ve never broken a bone, I’ve never been molested. I had parents who loved me. I was always fed and watered. Often when I hear the sorrows of others I double over, my mercy muscles contort, my heart breaks. Suddenly my own pain seems unimportant and I set it aside. I enter fully into the hurts of others and I ignore my own.

This likely was born in me, in part, as a result of being raised in Pakistan. Pakistan, like all of her South Asian neighbours, has people at both sides of the economic index: the very rich and the very poor. In the area where we lived we were surrounded by the plight of the poor. Their suffering was unimaginable. Beggars approached with missing limbs, with oozing wounds, with broken babies. Misery was immediately apparent. We saw their makeshift shacks everywhere we went. Plastic sheets tacked over cardboard and broken down crates. Cloth stretched over doorways, children playing in the dirt. These were their homes. It was impossible to come to grips with it all.

We knew people trapped by their employers. Brick makers who owed money to the boss for their housing, or to the agent who found them the job, their wages garnished with high fees and charges and made up taxes. They were slaves. They were stuck in their poverty. Sudden sickness, or school fees for their children meant borrowing more money from the owner of the brick factory with exorbitant interest rates, which further pushed them deeper into entrapment.  The poor lived with the drama of broken relationships, serious sicknesses, horrific tragedies all the time.

And this was the backdrop of my childhood.

Our lives were obviously vastly different to the lives of those around us. We had money for shoes. We had food. We had access to medical help. Although our family had known a degree of poverty, my memories of it were scant, and the poverty we had experienced wasn’t nearly as extreme. My parents always had the safety net of family and community and church and government. The law was enforced and we were protected from exploitation. We always had hope and dreams. We had options.

Even now comparing and contrasting my pain against the pains of those around me comes naturally. I hear the stories of heartache and betrayal, of sickness, of a child abused, of a love misused and I silence my own soul’s screams, I roll up my sleeves and I enter into the presenting problems of the person in front of me with sincerity and with the secret belief that this is the good and right response. After all I have a husband who is kind, children who are making good choices. We are healthy. We have food to eat. I’m perpetually tempted to minimize my own pain. This is “taking up my cross.” This is ministry. This is good. And I’ll be fine.

A gentle counselor once used this illustration to highlight how skewed my thinking was. Suppose there is an accident on the highway. Perhaps a large truck has crossed the center line and run into a car. Perhaps two or three cars are involved. Perhaps a motorcycle plows into another person. It’s a messy moment on the roadway. The ambulance comes. When the medical people are evaluating who’s been hurt and who’s okay, who needs to go on to the hospital and who’s fine, they don’t say to the person hit by the motorcycle, “You were only hit by a motorcycle. Shake it off. You’re going to be fine. See that other person on the stretcher. They were hit by the large truck. They have a right to be in pain. You, however, you need to buck up!” Only a calloused uncaring person would ever say that to a victim lying by the side of the road. That’s not how triage works. Each person is kindly cared for. Each person is checked for injuries and wounds. Each person matters. Each person’s pain is valid.

Even now, and this might seem completely insensitive to say, in the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal, it’s easy to think our own agonies are minimal. When we think about the ravaged and raw week Baltimoreans have had it’s tempting to brush off our own problems. And on many levels that’s true. Our houses are still standing. The ground beneath our feet is stable. Our communities are calm and quiet. But comparing our pain with their pain doesn’t do anything to alleviate the distress of the displaced and devastated Nepali or to comfort the enraged and confused citizen of Baltimore. Downplaying my own sorrow doesn’t somehow mysteriously fuel compassion for those still shaken from the ongoing aftershocks—both literal and metaphoric.

Trust me, it doesn’t do any good to ignore your own personal pain. You may have only been hit by a motorcycle…but you’ve been hit nonetheless and you’re hurting. Your pain matters.

I think it’s time to attend to our own souls. It’s time to notice the places we hurt, the spots that are still tender. Where do the deep emotions still lurk? Where do we still grieve? Where are the places we’ve been so terribly disappointed and betrayed? Sit quietly and be curious about your own soul. Be kind to you where you still hurt. Look after your self. Don’t be ashamed to seek treatment –a friend, a counselor, a doctor–where necessary.

Looking inward with gentleness and tender inquiry allows us to better connect with others in pain. Compassion comes from the heart that has honestly allowed itself to hurt. Only then can we remember what it feels like to be in pain. Remembering that, we can see the images on the television screen and our emotional response to the earth shattering, community shaking devastations will come from honest places. We can look in the eyes of anguished strangers and we can relate. We too have tasted the bitterness of gripping grief. We too have experienced heartache and despondency. Vulnerable hearts, still somewhat raw, can meet those victims of this broken world, and say with sincerity, “ I know what it feels like to hurt. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

As long as we live with sealed off spaces in our own selves our connecting to others in pain will be superficial and coldly professional. At the very best, that’s where pity is born. And there’s a reason the word pity is so pitiful. It lacks depth and authenticity.

It’s time to stop minimizing our own grief, our own sadness, our own misery. Comparing our own pain to the pains of others serves only to squish our own souls and kill the potential for connection in community. Honestly admitting our emotions makes us real people. Real people have the capacity to reach out to other really hurting people.  The sparks of empathy are fanned in these mysterious moments when my pain greets your pain.

Certainly it involves risk. I’m not saying it’s easy. In fact it’s scary to admit we hurt. Vulnerability invites vulnerability. There are others waiting to meet us there–others who’ve also been in pain, others who will weep with us when we weep. The Man of sorrows himself, is acquainted with the deepest of griefs. He welcomes our honest confessions. He sees our hurts. He hears our hearts. They matter to him. 

What about you? Do you tend to minimize your pain, instead of admitting it and healing, growing in your ability to offer compassion to others?

*A physical or emotional weakling; someone who lacks courage. It is meant as a mild insult –Urban Dictionary