Compassion Fatigue: Does It Really Exist?
An interesting question and one that will not have a straightforward or short answer.
As part of my exposure to reflective and self care practices through the University of Virginia School of Nursing and the Compassionate Care Initiative, I have been beyond blessed to meet some of the leaders and pioneers seeking to reverse this supposed “compassion fatigue” and more importantly, optimize one’s capacity to be fully present with another’s suffering AND feel competent and empowered to act courageously for its relief.
As I have shared before in a previous post, I have used the reflective mantra/positive affirmation below to provide me with strength in the most challenging moments to remain competent and empathetic when faced with serious suffering.
May I remain open to the heart, so that I may be fully for its relief
May there be peace for those who seek it
We are our own strength
Repeating this every morning and simply when the moment called for its reflective recitation, I have gained strength and assurance in my work as a clinician and healer, but more importantly as a caring human being.
Just yesterday, while driving back from my home in Charlottesville to my residency program in Winchester, I was blessed to hear a podcast between two of the most compassionate souls on this planet, Krista Tippett and Roshi Joan Halifax.
As I alluded to in the introduction, I have been beyond fortunate to have met and practiced with Roshi Joan Halifax (hoping my path will someday cross with Krista), and have been moved tremendously every time I’ve heard her soothing and engaged voice.
I encourage you, if you find time in your day, to listen to their conversation.
Buoyancy Rather than Burnout
Your heart will be glad that you did.
Now it would be silly of me to try to come up with anything more profound than what was said in this conversation, but I do want to highlight two fundamental ideas discussed in the podcast.
The first is the idea of the great deceiver to compassion: Pity
Thupten Jinpa has often called this the great imitator of compassion, an unfortunate, subtle and insidious emotion that allows one to create a barrier from another's hurt, elevating your being from the state of suffering as to protect your heart from the flames. One of my dear friends, Jonathan Bartels shares quite eloquently the idea that as caregivers you will walk into the burning fires of people's lives and through the rainstorms of another's pain, so why would you not expect to get burned? to get wet? Umbrellas and firesuits seem like great solutions to this problem, but unfortunately, they are simply the wardrobe of pity, not compassion.
(Fun side note: For the biblical scholars, does Daniel and the furnace ring any bells?)
When you enter the fires and rainstorms with compassion, you will be burned, you will feel the rain falling, but you will realize that you are not the rain, you are not the fire and that indeed you actually do not need armor or a raincoat to protect yourself during the storm, you just need a change of clothes once you get out.
A change of clothes?
A change of clothes
And what exactly do I mean when I say a change of clothes?
Reflective, contemplative, and self care practices
Pausing to breath, stopping to meditate, stepping into nature, taking a minute to pray, washing your hands after leaving the room and saying I am whole, I am here, I simply am.
That is your change of clothes, that is your wardrobe, that is compassion.
And the second and final idea is one that may be controversial, may be difficult to understand and is certainly challenging to practice, but an idea nonetheless that I think is important to discuss.
In a time when hurt is constantly thrust into our lives from incessantly updated media, we are often sucked into the empathetic, hurting vortex of pain created from suffering thousands of miles away.
I will be honest and tell you that I do not watch TV, I do not stay up to date with most public events. I am not regularly reading the paper and I can't remember the last time I sat down to watch anything on a news program. It is my choice.
Am I an uninformed, ignorant and careless soul living under a rock? To some, perhaps.
But in my eyes I see things a little differently. To be fair, I have experimented with the practice of engaging or disengaging from regular news outlets and have come to realize that if I let the images of popular media into my life, my heart is often overwhelmed, distracted and confused on where and how to beat to stop the flames of hurt present in my life.
I have come to realize, you see, that in order to remain open to the hurt present in my life and fully for its relief, I cannot simultaneously extend my gaze to the hurt into which I cannot physically walk AND the hurt sitting right in front of my eyes.
The images of hurt on TV? on social media? They are torches thrown into your life, shrapnel, the debris of suffering. They are not the fires in front of your feet. They are not the storm clouds forming above your head. Yes, they are fires, fires in need of tending, of gentle extinguishing, but not the fires on your door step.
As a clinician I am surrounded my storms and fires into which I can PHYSICALLY walk, dance and pray, and I believe without a shred of doubt that my PURPOSE is to walk, dance and pray in THESE storms, not to catch the grenades thrown from the outside or to huddle with the flames burning from afar.
With the practices of self care, purposeful refection and daily contemplation, I have and will continue to find the faith to walk into MY STORMS, MY FIRES, MY BURNING CHAOS.
Without distraction, without deterrence, without fear.
What would the world look like if we all fixed our gaze and dedicated our efforts to step into the storms and fires burning on our very door steps?
I don't know about you, but that sounds like a recipe for covering the globe in compassion if you ask me. We may think we can hug the globe, but in reality, we will only cover the globe with love by stretching our hearts and finding the hand of our neighbor knowing in faith, that our other hand, and theirs, will not be empty.
Shrink your gaze, expand your heart, and stop every day to change your clothes.
It is time for suffering to meet its maker.