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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