Do You Suffer From “Compassion Fatigue”?
While reading a commentary on the scriptures for the Twenty fourth Sunday in Ordinary time (last week), I came across a term I haven’t encountered before, “compassion fatigue”. The author was citing many of the horrors we have seen happen in our country and world over the past decades. He asserted that with the ability for us to see the sufferings of so many people—real time—we become exhausted in our capability to exercise compassion.
Exhausting our capacity for compassion is an idea that cuts me to my core. Is it really possible to excuse myself so easily?
Last week Fr. Bob Lampert shared his insights about Vatican Council II and the good that has come from that Council. I am too young to know what the Church was like before the Vatican II so Fr. Bob’s presentation was very helpful for me. More than the historical aspects of Vatican II is how the Document, The Church in the Modern World is lived out in the Church today. Fr. Bob’s emphasis was on “Reading the Signs of the Times In the Light of the Gospel”.
Is compassion fatigue as sign of our times? What light does the gospel shine on this problem? As I have been with this idea and also been reading Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si , I am beginning to understand the urgency with which the Pope is proclaiming his message of connectedness and mercy.
The gospels tell us that Jesus lived in a time when his people were under Roman rule. The standard was cruelty, not compassion. Yet Jesus had the audacity to preach an alternative practice to meeting cruelty with cruelty, “love your enemies, do good to those that hurt you, loving those that love you—even the gentiles do that.” Jesus preached to his own people, the under dogs. Our current propensity to meet fear with violence and injury with vengeance is nothing new in the world. When things became very dangerous, Jesus could have become a military leader or he could have simply become silent and walked away. He didn’t do either of these. His compassion, his capacity to be with his people in their suffering would not let him. His connection with the profound love of God fostered a deep sense of connection and mercy not only toward his followers but even those who put him to death. The gospels shine an unmistakable light of nonviolence into our world.
So often, I see militaristic attitudes displayed. I see campaign ads, social media posts and tweets political and otherwise that incite fear, violence and vengeance. The rhetoric is vicious and thick. What gets me the most is, it is often done in the name of a patriotic version of Christianity.
Pope Francis’ reminds Catholic Christians that our faith is “universal” not confined to one country, society or social standard. He reminds all peoples that we are connected in ways we never imagined. We are connected at the quantum level. What happens to you, happens to me—literally.
So the challenge is laid before us. Compassion, like any virtue needs to be exercised. As I read and pray with the gospels daily, I have to see where their light shines in my own attitudes and actions. I have to wonder if my struggle with compassion fatigue is a consequence of lethargy rather than over exertion.
At the depths of my being, I know I am loved and desire to follow Christ’s way of loving. Becoming aware, is the larger part of the gospel’s challenge. I invite you to join me in an honest prayer a conversation of the heart with the Lord through the scriptures, asking yourself as I ask myself. What are the signs of these times? When and where am I rendered incapable of compassion? Why? What does Jesus’ way of loving say and how do I respond in this path of love? May God send the grace of the Holy Spirit to guide us all.
Ana Cloughly, OSB