Thursday, October 27, 2011

Loving Your Neighbor in an Age of Compassion Fatigue

It has been a rough ten years. Last month we marked the anniversary of the attacks of 9/11. Subsequently we saw the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We have been assaulted by images of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was the Indian Ocean Tsunami. And massive earthquakes in Haiti, Pakistan, China. More recently, there was the earthquake and tsunami in Japan with the resulting damage to nuclear facilities. Many of us have watched many of these events unfold before our eyes either live or nearly live. In addition to all of this, over the last three years or so, we have been confronted with a global and national – not to mention, personal – financial crisis.

Add on the stories we each know of family, neighbors, friends, and fellow church members who are struggling with disease, family issues, work difficulties, etc. and it all starts to feel overwhelming.

Even if you are not in the midst of such troubles yourself, knowing about them can become a cumulative burden on your spirit.

I wonder if this isn’t a main contributing factor to the sense I get from talking to people that many of us feel harassed by life.

Information technology and social networking mean we are more connected than ever to the rest of the world. This means we are aware of more pain, suffering, and disappointment than ever.

It takes a toll. I wonder id our whole society isn’t experiencing a mild form of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Or more accurately, perhaps, the related condition of “compassion fatigue”. Compassion fatigue has traditionally been associated with people in the helping professions – doctors, nurses, therapists, police officers, social workers, etc. But, with the increased connectivity and access to images and information, I think it has become more generalized.

The symptoms are:
•disturbed sleep
•intrusive thoughts (unwelcome involuntary thoughts, images, or unpleasant ideas that may become obsessions, are upsetting or distressing, and can be difficult to manage or eliminate)
•outbursts of anger
•hyper-vigilance (constant scanning of the environment for threats)
•and a desire to avoid people who we know are hurting or who you know will disturb your equilibrium.

Sound familiar? I suspect many of us have experienced several of these over the last few years. And they seem pervasive in our society. I suspect that this explains in part the increased polarization we see all around us. It also explains the pervasive cynicism, anger, and hopelessness.

Some researchers have suggested that all of this leads to a sort of “psychic numbness” that diminishes our ability to engage those around us and the world with compassion. We are tempted to resort to a hunker down mentality and become insular or to throw up our hands in resignation that nothing can change for the good.

And yet, as Christians, we must resist this tendency even as we acknowledge its reality and power. In his summary of the Law, Jesus enjoins us to, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That is a call to compassion, a call to care. How might we respond to that call while avoiding compassion fatigue?

Let us first of all admit that loving our neighbor is not always easy. Not just because some neighbors are hard to love, but because of the nature of love itself. To love someone means to make ourselves available to them –available to their hopes and joys, their need and their fear. That also means we make ourselves vulnerable to their hurt and sorrow. That is the inevitable consequence of love. As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one. . . . It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

The cumulative effect of that vulnerability is what leads to compassion fatigue.

How do we avoid becoming weary or cynical or withdrawing into our own small private worlds? How do we continue to be available and vulnerable in love toward our neighbor in an age of compassion fatigue?

• I suggest it begins with the first commandment – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart mind and soul.” When we orient everything in our heart, mind, and life toward God who is working all for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28) the hard realities in our lives and the world around us are put in perspective. We love God first of all because God is worthy of love. But, because we are made for that love, orienting our lives toward the love at the heart of it all is the foundation of our health and strength.

• Make it a priority to carve out time each day for plant yourself next to streams of living water as the psalmist encourages us this morning (Psalm 1). That means pray. Certainly pray about the things that concern you. But I encourage you to practice the prayer of silence. Be still and know that the Lord is God (Psalm 46:10). Listen for the still small voice of God. Calm and quiet your soul, like a child quieted at its mother's breast (Psalm 131:2)

• And don’t just pray alone. Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but come to worship where we reorient ourselves toward God and encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25).

• Keep Sabbath. Take extended time to rest and focus your attention on God. Try this. On Sundays, do not watch the news, do not go on the internet, and rest from the worries of the world. God will continue to tend the world while you rest. Do something restorative – read, walk in the woods, exercise, knit, make something, etc. Some researchers suggest that our capacity for compassion is finite and will become depleted if not restored. Among other things, Sabbath is a means of restoring that capacity.

• Acknowledge your own vulnerability. You are a limited, finite creature. You are not God. Only God, who is love, can be infinitely available and vulnerable in love. Our capacity for compassion is limited and can become drained. You cannot give all of yourself all the time to everyone. And sometimes it is OK and necessary to step back for a time. Know when you’ve had enough.

• Remember that God bears it all and bears it with you. You are not alone. Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." The burden is light because he bears it with you.

• Do what you can and trust the rest to God. Focus your care. Again this is part of accepting our creatureliness. We cannot do everything everywhere. So it helps to decide what we can do and focus on that. Our involvement with the Sudan is an example of this. We cannot address all the needs of the world or even I the Sudan. But, God has placed the people of Renk and Maban in our path and we can do some things for them. And doing that allows us to trust God to rise up others to care for Haiti, Japan, or elsewhere. Doing something somewhere also frees us from despairing of feeling helpless. This is true locally and personally as well. If we are careful not to take on more than we can manage, we can manage, with God’s help, what we are called to take on. In doing so, we can still remain open to People and situations that aren’t already on our radar while discerning what we are called to do and letting go of the rest.

• Find someone to talk to about the hard stuff but who will encourage you. “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). “Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1).

• Don’t dwell on the negative. Don’t allow yourself to get in a rut of rehearsing all that is bad in the world or the wrongs that have been done to you. “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Philippians 4:8).

• End each day naming the good – in your own life and in the world. Give thanks to God for at least three three things. “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

Jesus enjoins us to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is difficult and perilous thing as we make ourselves available and vulnerable to caring in a world full of tragedy and disappointment. But, by the grace of Christ’s Spirit working in us and through us we can continue to love our neighbor even in an age of compassion fatigue.


Anonymous said...

Your quote from Lewis reminds me of my favorite part of Gibran's The Prophet:

"But if in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love's threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love."

I've been thinking about these things lately, especially the complete nature that love requires of us. I think there is a firm temptation to measure our lives out with "coffee spoons", as Eliot put it. But, I'm getting off subject. There may be a blog post in the future.

What I meant to write was that this wonderful and much-needed advice, especially the "do what you can and leave the rest to God" part. Thank you!

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, Andrew. Yes, we don't want to "measure our lives out with 'coffee spoons', as Eliot put it." Jesus does after call us to take up the cross. And St. Paul challneges us to be living sacrifices. An Paul talks about pouring himself out as a libation.

Recognizing our limits is not an invitation to complacency.

My wife reminded me of Mother Teresa's rule for the Sisters of Charity:

The Sisters shall spend one day in every week, one week in every month, one month in every year, and one year in every six years in the Motherhouse, where in contemplationand penance together with solitude she can gather the spiritual strength, which she might have used up in the service of the poor. When these Sisters are at home, the others will take their place in the Mission field.

Matt Gunter said...

FWIW, I corrected the several typos that were in the original posting of this blog entry.

Robert F said...

Maybe as Christians it should be: "Do a little more than you think you can, and leave the rest to God"? It seems to me that one of the things God requires of us is that we not play it safe, that we engage in intentional, faithful risk that would be foolish if wasn't for the fact that Jesus is Lord.