Thursday, June 21, 2012

Compassion Fatigue…

A father told me recently about taking his baby to the emergency room. Nothing was urgent; she just had a slight fever. Still, he was anxious, and it took awhile for the nurses to arrive. And when they did, it seems the man’s patience had eroded. He confessed, “I was testy. I doubt the nurses liked me much!” Worry has a way of encouraging our dark sides.

Afterwards, though, he admitted regret, and said he was impressed that the nurses weren’t as short as he was. After all, he surmised, caring for people is tiring. That most nurses (or social workers, or doctors, or…) don’t snap at others more often says something about their endurance, the stamina of their hearts. Because compassion fatigue is real, he claimed, our capacity for empathy is limited. Like gas in a gas tank, our hearts can deplete. Ever have another ask you for money at the end of a long day? Did you respond rather cranky? Me too…

Although, unlike a gas tank- more like a muscle, I suspect- we also have the option to get better at empathy. Ever begin lifting weights or going on runs after a months/years long break? What happened the next day? You wailed and moaned with muscle cramps! But if you pushed through and stuck to it, kept lifting or running, over days, weeks, months, the pain diminished, right? You could lift more or run longer; it took less time for your body to recover. Like that, I believe, our hearts care for others. Perhaps the first time you volunteer at the foodshelf or listen to the heartrending story of a neighbor’s loss, you feel overwhelmed, uncomfortable, unsure if you want to continue. But the more you do it, the more intentionally you love and serve and care, the more I find you’re able to abide the discomfort, keep your eyes from closing, to share your compassion and empathy with another in need.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a 20th century German pastor and theologian who I wrote about last week, spent years in a Nazi jail awaiting trial for conspiring against Hitler’s life. And something about his story I find deeply moving- and instructive- is that during his jail time, people noticed his contentment. Apparently, the man constantly ministered to others in prison; preached for fellow prisoners, led their funeral services, visited the sick, said prayers during Allied bombing raids. Cell mates commented after he was executed that he was constantly upbeat and joyful, even though his own case remained unsettled, even though his own outlook was dire. Sure, he got tired, prayed in anguish and fear at times. But more often, he overcame his compassion fatigue by helping others ride out the storm. He had trained his heart and soul, apparently, to persevere in trying times.

People talk of many different ways to build such fortitude and character, and there probably are a lot. But one tried and trustworthy technique I trust is just going out and doing it. Seeing something that requires compassion and commitment, empathy and action, and deciding to do something to help, though it’ll take work and effort and heartache. This summer, we’re exploring ‘spiritual growth’ techniques; learning from “spiritual master gardeners” about how they grew so wise and profound. This week, I want to encourage you to try Bonhoeffer’s method. Rather than pray more or read the Bible more or spend an hour in meditation, find something that frustrates you about the world, and do something to make a difference. Is it political polarization? Write your representatives a letter, describing your hope that they’ll work more closely with their opponents ‘across the aisles.’ Is it poverty in the suburbs? Call IOCP, and schedule an afternoon to work in the foodshelf. Perhaps it’s bullying in school, war in Syria or antibiotic abuse in meat production. But whatever worries your soul, don’t just complain or despair this week. Exercise your compassion muscles and act somehow to make a change. Trust me- or Bonhoeffer- it’ll do your soul good. You may even grow closer to that fount of every blessing, the God we worship, whose name is Love.

Grace and Peace,

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