A few weeks ago I was enjoying morning coffee with my husband, when he looked up from his reading to inform me of yet another instance of Christian martyrdom in the Middle East. This one, if I remember correctly, involved chainsaws. As he shared the details with me and I sat soaking them in, I found myself disturbed not only by the news story but by something else: my own reaction, which was along the lines of, “Oh. Another one.”
I quietly listened to the story, took another sip of coffee, and returned to my own reading. Later in the day, as I reflected on the morning’s conversation I found myself increasingly troubled by my dispassionate reaction to hearing of yet another atrocity against a fellow Christian. There is something terribly wrong in a world in which Christian martyrdom is fast becoming a “dog bites man” rather than “man bites dog” story. There is also something terribly wrong when a generally compassionate person can listen to a news story about the beheading of innocent human beings then without missing a beat go right back to her coffee mug and breakfast croissant. Yet what else was there to do?
Psychologists have identified something they call compassion fatigue—a syndrome that affects those who give extensive and ongoing care to others. Compassion fatigue occurs when one who is repeatedly called upon to tend to the physical and emotional needs of others grows weary of doing so to the extent that destructive patterns of behavior emerge in his or her own life. It is commonly seen in medical workers, ministers, and caregivers and is a defense mechanism of sorts, similar to the dissociation often practiced by children of alcoholics.
Sometimes, in painful situations humans find it necessary to emotionally detach in order to survive. Yet while that detachment can to a certain extent be helpful, aiding in the ability to continue functioning normally, it can also be harmful if it is carried to extreme, impeding normal psychological and emotional development and the forming of healthy relationships.
What about Current Events Fatigue?
Thinking about compassion fatigue, I can’t help but wonder: is there such a thing as Current Events Fatigue? I think there is, and I think I’ve experienced it. I grew up in a Democrat household, but one in which current events were not discussed at great length or in great depth. In college, as I began to study the issues on my own with help from the man I would eventually marry, I became a conservative Republican. I started paying more attention to politics when Ronald Reagan became the fortieth president of the United States, and I’m sure that had something to do with it.
As a college student and then a young married-with-children, I spent a number of years staying fairly abreast of the news and even becoming somewhat politically active, giving money and volunteering my time for candidates as I was able. Then in 2008 Barack Obama was elected to the presidency, and knowing well what this would mean for my country, I lost some of my youthful enthusiasm (okay, I fell into a deep, dark pit of despondency). When it happened again in 2012, I intentionally quit paying attention to politics and stuck my head in the proverbial sand. I was too discouraged to do anything else.
Now, as national and world events continue to dismay conservative, traditionally-minded Christians such as myself, I find myself wondering if I will ever get my current events groove back. Current Events Fatigue? You bet I have it. Yet, as a 50-year-old mother of three children who, God-willing, has another 35-40 years or more on the planet (I’m thinking optimistically here), I know I can’t just stop caring. I owe it to my children and grandchildren to not stick my head in the sand. But how does one care without being completely swallowed up by it? That is the question. If you have found yourself wondering the same thing, here are a few suggestions.
1. If You Have Children, Teach Them
Teach them about the ideals on which our country was founded. Teach them the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem, and the Preamble to the Constitution. Chances are they aren’t learning those things in school. Teach them patriotic songs (they probably aren’t learning those either, since music classes are seen as an unaffordable luxury in many districts).
Protect them from the parts of the news you don’t think they are ready for, but to the extent that they can understand, share with them what is going on in the world, and teach them how to measure those things against the civic and spiritual values you are trying to instill. They are the parents, teachers, workers, and politicians of the future. The future needs them to be informed.
2. Go about Your Daily Life
Martin Luther is said to have stated that if he knew the world was going to end tomorrow, he would still plant a tree today. I don’t know if he actually said that, but it is a message worth heeding. No one knows when the world is going to end; none of us knows what tomorrow is going to bring. So, somehow we must live in the moment, caring for our families, serving our neighbors, and making a difference in whatever small ways we can.
This attitude towards daily life is one Luther taught and is known among Lutherans as the Doctrine of Vocation. But you don’t have to be a Lutheran, or even a Christian, to see its value. I may not be able today to march on Washington, go door-to-door handing out political tracts, or make a sizable donation to the candidate of my choice. But I can do what I do, whatever that is, and in so doing I can make a difference in my own little corner of the world.
3. Be the Change You Seek
When Obama was campaigning for the presidency, he galvanized his supporters with the words, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” As a conservative with an innate distrust of human nature and an essential skepticism of the very idea of progress, I tend to dismiss such words as politicking. I don’t think the possibilities are limitless, nor do I think human beings can accomplish anything they set their minds to. I believe, on the contrary, that people are naturally sinful and that one day this world is going to end.
Why care, then? Because my neighbor needs me. The fact that there will always be hunger, war, poverty, disease, and hatred in the world doesn’t negate the need for us to help the individuals we can. While we may not be able to save the world, we might be able to save an individual.
We can do so at home by helping our friend, co-worker, or next-door neighbor in some small way, or we can do so at a distance through our prayers and our material support. Back in the nineties, my husband and I adopted a child through the organization Compassion International. From the time she was nine years old until she graduated from the Compassion program, we provided monthly support for her education and care. During that time we regularly prayed for and corresponded with Rakhi. Weighed against the daily gush of bad news from all parts of the globe, it seems but a drop in the bucket. But that slow, steady drip changed Rakhi’s life and, what’s more, it changed ours.
4. When It Gets Overwhelming, Take a Break
Back in 2012 on my personal blog, I informed my readers that I was going to ignore politics for a while. I called it my “Anything But Politics Challenge.” It helped me to refocus on things I cared about that I had forgotten. It helped me to once again ground myself in the real, flesh-and-blood community around me.
Today I find that I am still practicing some of those strategies to keep a healthy distance from things over which I have no control. I generally don’t read comments on blogs, because they go nowhere. I avoid Facebook pages and other websites that I know will only upset me. I fight the temptation to get into online debates. I don’t look at it as sticking my head in the sand, but as preserving my sanity so I can continue to tend to my primary vocations of wife and mother.
I realize this point may not apply to all readers, and that’s okay. But if you are a believing person, prayer is both the first and final line of defense. I believe that when there is nothing else, there is a God who cares for and hears His children. That is my ultimate comfort and defense against the fatigue of living in a messed up world.
Several years ago, following the Sandy Hook school massacre, I received a note from a Facebook friend of mine who is a pastor. He had noted my posts about the shooting and was concerned that I was to some extent experiencing what he called being “infected by the scene.” He described it as a phenomenon associated mostly with first responders to catastrophic events but said it could be experienced on a lesser scale by compassionate people from a distance who become so affected by an event that they begin to let it overtake them in a way that is not helpful or healthy.
I knew that as a chaplain and first responder himself he spoke with authority, and I heeded his advice, which was to not allow myself to be so “infected.” There was, as he put it, nothing to be gained by allowing my empathy for the victims and their families to affect my own daily life. In fact, he said that to succumb to grief to that extent was to give the perpetrator power to do even more harm than he already had. My pastor friend advised me to turn off the television, quit reading the news, say a prayer, and go about serving my neighbor. It was good advice, and I tried to follow it.
In a world that seems in many ways to be spiraling completely out of control, it is important to find a balance between utter fatigue and withdrawal, and extreme empathy or “infection by the scene.” It is a tremendously difficult balance to find, but one each of us in his own way needs to seek. I hope that the five strategies listed here may help as you consider how to seek that balance in your own life.