More Compassion Fatigue

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How do we react to images of suffering?

An article on Time.com tells about the fatigue that many people are feeling over the past few weeks.  On this site this fatigue has been called ‘compassion fatigue’; Time calls it ‘disaster fatigue’.  The sources for this fatigue are often seen to stem from two places: overexposure by the media and over-solicitation by charitable organizations.  It’s also a term referring to overworked physicians or caretakers, and to oversimplify the situation, the sources are the same: the saturation of suffering that we vicariously experience (either through direct care or media), and the over-solicitation of help that we face.

The result of compassion fatigue is fairly obvious: we don’t want to hear about the suffering of others; we feel an apathy and cynicism that our efforts make any difference.

Additionally, I think we can agree: we don’t want to experience compassion fatigue.  Being desensitized to the sufferings of others, feeling indifferent or even helpless are places where we don’t want to go.  The desensitization, the indifference makes us less human, even: we lose our connection with other people, we lose belief in our ability to change circumstances.  We lose our compassion.  But we are left with the question: how do we battle compassion fatigue?

To begin, we examine the causes.  With the information revolution that has changed the world over the past ten years, we see how overexposure is a unique problem.  For the sake of argument, let’s rewind 100 years.  A man or woman 100 years ago feels compassion to those around him or her: relatives — who often live quite close — and neighbors.  In communities 100 years ago, people were more reliant on each other: if someone had to move there was no moving company to call, if the father or a family died there were generally not life-insurance policies; rather, the community gathered around the suffering family.  Even in my own family, when my great-grandfather broke his leg in the 1940′s, a local man came around to care for the crops.  Exposure to greater suffering came through radio and newspaper.  Images of others suffering outside of the community were rare.

Fast forward to today.  The communal commitment to others’ well being is not as present: insurance and workers comp and welfare and a host of other structures have deemed most of that unnecessary.  If a man or woman hurts him- or herself on the job, insurance helps that person, not someone from down the street.  Additionally, images of suffering are daily flashed to us: Burma, China, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the evening news that focuses on suffering in our local communities.  It is almost as if there is a ‘compassion quotient’ that determines how much compassion we can offer.  The images trigger empathy, and then are replaced with images of suffering in another locale, and then replaced by images from another locale, until we have no more empathy, no more compassion to offer.

The images, also, are followed by solicitation: we have familiar solicitations from friends and relatives that people have fulfilled for thousands of years.  But we also have solicitations from organizations bombarding us: World Vision, the Red Cross, the One Campaign, even American Idol has a night devoted to soliciting help.  Obviously, these are great organizations; my wife and I support organizations like these financially.  I am interested, though, in how the bombardment of information and solicitation affects us — both positively and negatively.

I’ll stop here for today, and I’d love to hear thoughts from people.  More to come in upcoming days and weeks, as we think about what it means to show compassion specifically now while inundated with images that, surprisingly, separate us rather than connect us due to their quantity.  How do we step through these images and find places to show compassion?  How do we react to images of suffering — and we want to act — but we simply cannot?