We care deeply, until we can’t care anymore. What can we do when we feel drained, numb or burned-out? How can we handle compassion fatigue?
Acrid smoke from a thousand cooking fires filled the air. Pigs, dogs and naked children ran through streams of waste. Old men and women, squatting on the ground, bore long faces of sadness and resignation. Mothers in traditional dress nursed crying, dirt-smudged babies.
The sights and smells of my first days as a volunteer in Chiang Kham refugee camp in northern Thailand are etched in my mind. I recall the long rows of temporary huts with metal roofs and thatched bamboo walls. Families of six or eight lived in about 9 square yards of space inside each bare hut. No running water, no plumbing. Only nearby wells and outdoor latrines.
By early 1982, a camp initially designed for 6,000 people had become home for 20,000 hill tribe refugees from nearby communist Laos. Many had escaped across mountains and rivers with just their clothes and their lives. Disease was rampant in such cramped and squalid conditions.
Refugee camps of this type were sprinkled across Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War. Sadly, dozens more have emerged in scores of countries since, notably in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some 65.6 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide. They often live without any solid hope for the future—homeless and nationless.
It’s hard for most reasonable people not to care about other humans in these conditions. But it’s also easy to become weary of caring. Nevertheless, individuals, governments and international aid agencies continue to provide essential material assistance to refugees and victims of all types of disasters worldwide.
In 2016 the European Union was the world’s leading aid donor, offering more than 75 billion euros (US$92 billion) in humanitarian support worldwide. Canada, Great Britain, Japan, the U.S. and many other nations contribute as well. Fund-raising for these efforts is a never-ending task.
But will it be enough?
Jesus Christ spoke of these end times with sobering words: “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows” (Matthew 24:6-8).
Jesus foretold the suffering of these days. He also spoke of unprecedented catastrophic events that will come about, threatening the very existence of mankind (verses 21-22). It will get much worse before it gets better.
In the midst of all this, Jesus also explained that because the end times will be so bad, the natural love and affection of human beings “will grow cold” (verse 12). People will simply get tired of caring. Today health professionals call it “compassion fatigue.”
What is compassion fatigue?
Utpal Dholakia, a professor at Rice University, observes, “After a natural disaster, people are naturally empathetic. However, this empathy starts to wear off rather quickly. They start experiencing what psychologists call ‘compassion fatigue,’ or a reduction in empathy that occurs when an individual is exposed continually to the suffering of others.”
Consider your own response to the rising number of catastrophes worldwide—hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, torrential storms, drought and volcanic eruptions, to name a few. More ominous is the impact of wars, nuclear and environmental disasters, terrorist attacks and disease epidemics.
So much loss and pain. It’s easy to grow weary with so much suffering in our world. In fact, it’s easy to simply stop caring about others.So much loss and pain. It’s easy to grow weary with so much suffering in our world. In fact, it’s easy to simply stop caring about others. Nearly 2,000 years ago the apostle Paul warned Christians to not grow weary in doing good and to “not lose heart” (Galatians 6:9). But that’s hard for humans to do.
Harvard psychologist Jamil Zaki notes: “The term ‘compassion fatigue’ was first coined to describe hospice workers, who—after spending their professional lives exposed to fear and pain—can find themselves drained of instinctual concern for others. With today’s mass media, anyone with a newspaper or internet connection is able to receive daily, multimedia updates about crises—man-made and natural—affecting people all over the world. The resulting habituation, paired with a feeling of numbness, can drain our empathy, motivating us to stop caring about victims of tragedies.”
Studies have found that financial contributions to disaster relief tend to drop off from an initial strong surge in the first week or two, to barely a trickle after three to six weeks, and may dry up completely within three to four months. Interest and concern quickly fade away, and too soon another disaster grabs media attention.
What are the symptoms?
Compassion fatigue can affect anyone who really cares, whether health professionals and counselors, or parents and friends. The demands of daily life, not to mention watching the troubling news of the world around us, can wear us down.
The symptoms of this fatigue are many. Here are just a few identified by the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project:
- Reoccurrence of nightmares and flashbacks related to a traumatic event.
- Chronic physical ailments, such as gastrointestinal problems and recurrent colds.
- Isolation from others.
- Poor self-care, neglect of hygiene, appearance, etc.
- Bottled-up emotions.
- Apathy, sadness.
- Substance abuse to mask feelings.
- Excessive blaming.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Mental and physical tiredness.
In many ways, compassion fatigue is similar to physical, emotional or spiritual burnout. Caring for others requires too much effort.
What should we do?
What if we do become weary of well doing? What if our compassion for others wanes and we grow too tired of caring? What can we do?
“Do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.”Jesus Christ set the ultimate example of care and compassion for fellow human beings during His lifetime, and extended His care even in His death. In fact, He told His disciples to not only love God with all their might, but to love their neighbor as themselves (Matthew 22:37-40). Thus, He commanded us to care for everyone as He did.
During His earthly ministry, He was “moved with compassion” toward the multitudes of suffering people He encountered (Matthew 9:35-36). He didn’t turn a blind eye to their needs. He comforted them with the truth of the gospel and healed them of their many diseases.
Likewise, the apostle James instructs us to demonstrate our Christianity by actively doing something, not just thinking or talking about it (James 2:14-17). The author of Hebrews tells us: “Do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Hebrews 13:16).
But God also knows that we get tired and weary. We don’t inherently have His strength and resilience in the face of suffering all around us. We need His help. The apostle Peter advised us to cast all our worries and cares upon God because He does care for us (1 Peter 5:7). When we get overwhelmed and worried, we can turn to God and tell Him everything.
Notice the apostle Paul’s words: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7, New International Version).
We cannot personally solve the world’s problems. But we can bring every problem to God’s attention and serve our fellow men and women as best we can. We can pray for God’s intervention and comfort for mankind. We can also pray that Jesus Christ will return quickly and establish His Kingdom on this earth.
By so doing, we continue to show love and compassion for all our neighbors—the whole world.