I have compassion fatigue.
Or at least something like it.
For anyone who might be unfamiliar with the term, compassion fatigue is the name given to describe the limited human ability to expend emotional energy. Simply put, we can’t care about everything. Ordinarily, you see compassion fatigue in those who work with hurting people to the extent that they seem to become senseless to the pain of others. We see social workers to whom suffering children and families have just become numbers, or workers at the Social Security or unemployment office who close their eyes to the humanity in front of them.
Some time ago, I experienced it when Patti and I chaired the church missions committee. So many letters, cards, videos, and other requests for funds came to us through the church, and through the mail, that we simply couldn’t read them all. The church had a limited budget and couldn’t give funds to even half of them. Likewise, we had limited emotional energy, and we didn’t have the capacity to worry about the needs of every single organization that asked for our help.
Something similar is happening now.
We are surrounded by hurting, isolated, people.
The news is filled with an endless parade of crises.
Facebook and other social media outlets are filled with the reports of friends and family that are struggling.
And I find myself tuning out.
To be fair, I’m trying to be selective.
I don’t have the emotional energy to care about everything. There is so much going on that I don’t have the time to focus on the myriad of legitimate concerns that confront me. I need to care, but I need to take care of myself and my family at the same time.
But sometimes I feel like I should care more.
There are so many important issues to confront. Immigration, racial inequality, church finance, unemployment, mourning the loss of church family members, a divisive national election, a divided denomination, and the list just goes on and on.
And the elephant in the room is always COVID-19. Every day I think about it. It has changed the way we live, the way we work, the way that we associate with other, and the way that we are… permitted… to care for others. This virus has changed the way that we do everything. And, worse than that, it requires that we pay attention to it, to spend some of our emotional energy on it, constantly, every day. We have to think about how often we go to the store, or how often we leave the house, or how many people we might come in contact with, or whether we have a clean mask to wear, and so on. All day. Every day.
And the emotional toll of that constant attention nibbles away at our compassion.
I feel it and I’m sure you do too.
We have a limited amount of emotional energy. We simply do not have the capacity to care about everything. And when our concerns, and our necessary attention to this virus is added to the constant parade of important concerns, we find ourselves unable to care about them all.
We just don’t have the time or the energy.
So sometimes I feel like I should be paying more attention to important issues that are facing our society, or our church, and I feel guilty when I don’t study them, and highlight them in my preaching or my writing.
But I just can’t.
I’m sure that you may have felt something similar. The Coronavirus is stealing from us. Its constant demands for attention are stealing our emotional energy and our capacity to care. But we can’t close ourselves off to the world. We can’t allow ourselves to shut down emotionally. We need to be conscious and aware of the emotional toll and take steps to protect ourselves.
Already, I’ve seen otherwise nice people post unkind, uncompassionate, and sometimes downright mean things on social media as they argue about politics, or race, or the coronavirus, or, well, you get the idea. But in our fatigue, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of becoming so focused on one problem, or one crisis, that we are unable to see how that focus causes us to mistreat others who are battling their way through a host of other crises.
I admit that I’m tired.
Whether you want to call it crisis fatigue, or compassion fatigue, or COVID fatigue, or something else, we need to admit that the continuing bombardment of urgent physical, social, and political disruptions is wearing on us. And we need to take steps to protect ourselves.
If you have to, turn off the news occasionally. Or take an extra day off. Or turn off the internet for a day or two. But do what you need to do to restore your equilibrium. Recognize that you don’t have the emotional capacity to worry about everything at the same time. Leave yourself some emotional space to care about the people closest to you so that you can reach out to your friends, neighbors, or coworkers when they need you.
Take the time to rest both physically and emotionally.
Don’t feel guilty about taking a step back. As they say in the airline safety briefings, “You can’t care for someone else, unless you take care of yourself first.”
We need to care for ourselves so that we don’t lose our sense of compassion entirely.
We need to rest so that we will, as the Apostle Paul said in 2 Thessalonians 3:13, “…never tire of doing what is good.”
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