Dealing with Compassion Fatigue

 October 3, 2017

First there was Hurricane Harvey, leaving a path of destruction in Texas. Then Hurricane Irma in Florida, followed by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and earthquakes in Mexico. Then while driving the other morning I heard about the massive shootings in Las Vegas. Tears slipped down my cheeks as I drove.

Enough already! I had more than I could take with the first two hurricanes. In fact, I found a certain callousness creeping into my consciousness when I heard complaints from Puerto Rico that it had been five days and no relief efforts in sight. You’re on an island with poor infrastructure to begin with. What did you expect? A miracle? You can’t get supplies when there are no means to deliver those supplies, I found myself thinking. You can’t make up for decades of neglected infrastructure in less than a week!

Then I stopped and asked myself:  am I experiencing compassion fatigue? I just couldn’t take any more pictures of devastation, people clinging to life and calls for help. I was becoming callous in order to protect myself from overwhelming feelings of loss and powerlessness.

And on top of all of that, locally a young mother and her four year old child and one year old baby were killed in a car accident last week. No, I didn’t lose anyone myself, but just the thought of losing one of my daughters and grandbabies is excruciating. The sight of so much devastation and tales of lives lost continue to bring home to me, just how fragile and precious life is.

What is one to do in the fact of such massive destruction and loss of life? What are we to do when catastrophe after catastrophe is blazoned across our TV and computer screens? What to do when in the midst of compassion fatigue?

First recognize compassion fatigue for what it is. I could have continued to remain callous in my response to Puerto Rice, hiding from the feelings about the situation. Instead I chose to recognize that this wasn’t like me. This wasn’t a Christian response to suffering.

Then allow yourself to feel the pain. There is so much grief in our world in the aftermath so much destruction, so much frustration from our inability to respond. So much hatred being poured out by a shooter who rained down bullets on a crowd of innocent people and so much suffering resulting from that hatred.

After experiencing the feelings, look for ways to let them go. Turn off the TV and other media forms. Go for a walk or bike ride, hug a child, meet a friend for coffee, or soak in a hot tub. Whatever it takes for you to heal and start to feel more like yourself again.

For me, being out in nature is healing, also being around babies and small children. They are proof that life goes on in the midst of sorrow and pain. And I pray. I put myself in God’s hands, trusting in his love and kindness. I trust that God will heal what is in need of healing and renew my sense of compassion so that then I may act in a caring and gentle manner.

And I write.

As Christina Mitchell wrote this week for the Capital City Writers’ Association,

We cannot control the rest of the world. We can’t control the maniacs and sociopaths. What we can do, is channel all of our beautiful, horrible pain, into art. Into a sweep of words that will carry the reader away from the ache, or perhaps hurtle them into it. Either way, we are storytellers. We see the same things everyone else sees, but we see them differently. And we take what we see and feel, filter it through our bloodstream and then we squeeze our hearts out on the page, turning blood into ink. 

And so I embrace the hurt, the pain, the suffering, the anger, but I don’t let those feelings change who I am or cause me to be callous. I allow my heart to be broken and I put it back together again.

What about you? How are you dealing with all of the heartbreaking news?

The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink. T.S. Elliott

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