Compassion Fatigue

by Wendy Bilgen, MSSA, LISW-S, LCSW

Matthew 9:36   “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them,because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

 

Something happens to many of us as we are continually confronted with the reality of pain, loss and horror around us.  We stop caring so much and become dull to it. Unfortunately many of us suffer from what has been called ‘compassion fatigue’.

Compassion fatigue as a syndrome is characterized by symptoms that include exhaustion, anger, depression, burnout, indifference.   It occurs when we are repeatedly confronted with trauma either directly through personal experience or vicariously through the stories of others. We may begin to numb ourselves to the suffering of others around us, often as a survival mechanism that allows us to tune out a sad reality in order to find relief from the pain associated with it. Compassion fatigue can also show up in various forms of addiction such as alcohol, pornography, food addictions and gambling as people attempt to withdraw from life’s stressors and numb out interaction with the reality of pain in our world.  Where does this come from and what can we do?

In a book written by Susan Moeller called Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death, Moeller describes how media over- saturation can lead to compassion fatigue.  By this she means that through constant graphic stories and images we are all at risk of becoming indifferent to the suffering around us. She notices with lament that oftentimes “television pictures of starving children or max exodus of refugees no longer tug us strongly”.

In her book Moeller says that we, as media consumers, “eventually get to the point where we turn the page” and start  “believing that we don’t care”. But the reality is we do care! It is not because we don’t care that we get compassion fatigue, it’s because we DO care that we get compassion fatigue.  Because we do care but do not know what to do in response to the suffering we see.   Jesus saw the suffering, He cared, and He responded.  He responded with weeping, with compassion, and with action.

We see a lot in our world today.  Because of today’s technology we probably see more than we can emotionally handle.  We take in images so graphic and disturbing we are left with hard choice on how to respond. We can see the crowds, their harassed, helpless and suffering state and like Jesus have compassion on them. Or we can shut down, protect ourselves from the images through indifference, angry judgments, or other forms of emotional numbing, giving in to compassion fatigue.

Responding to suffering with indifference can be damaging. For people who do care, compassion fatigue comes with ambiguity, guilt, and ambivalence when we do nothing. One journalist, responding to her own inner turmoil after covering stories of war and starvation wrote:.. “Tragedies everywhere, filling the newspaper pages and television screens. Our hearts and minds struggle like a frantic war-zone doctor in a crowded medical tent as the cries for help inundate us. Which hands reaching out for us shall we take, and which shall we pass by? …should we just give in to the impulse to succumb to ‘compassion fatigue’ and pull the all-cotton premium goosedown covers over our heads?  (“Our Struggle with Our Hearts,” Carol Ostrom, August 10, 1992 Seattle Times)

As much as we might like to ignore the magnitude of suffering around us, it is simply impossible.  If we see it, we will feel, and we must respond to it!  We are challenged then to find ways to respond, to not shut down emotionally, to not become indifferent. How?  We can copy Jesus. We can weep, we can pray, we can act.

We can weep Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep(Romans 12:15)

We can pray “ And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” And He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour? “Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”… (Matther 26:40)  When Jesus was faced with suffering (in this case it was his own imminent death) he prayed and he wants us to pray too!  He knows we will become weary, tired, cold, distracted, disinterested…but he says pray anyway!!

We can help Remember Jesus’ words through a parable in which he was describing the kingdom of God to his followers.   (Read Matthew 25: 31-42). He said “As much as you have done it to the least of these you have done it unto me…”  He was describing a scene to his followers in which true believers are separated from pretenders based on their actions toward the suffering.  It’s true we can’t help everyone, Jesus can. But we can and are expected to respond by helping some. I so often say “I want my actions to match my desire to truly follow Christ”.

I’m not going to let compassion fatigue stop me.