“All of you who are thirsty, come to the water!
Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat!
Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk!
Why spend money for what isn’t food,
and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy?
Listen carefully to me and eat what is good;
enjoy the richest of feasts.”
“We must learn to celebrate. I say learn to celebrate, because celebration is not just a spontaneous event. We have to discover what celebration is. Our world doesn’t know about celebration. We know quite a bit about parties, where we are artificially stimulated with alcohol to have fun. We know what movies and distractions are. But do we know what celebration is? Do we know how to celebrate our togetherness, our being one body? Do we really know how to use all of that is human and divine to celebrate together?”
— Jean Vanier as quoted in A Mile in My Shoes
Several years ago I became depressed and was eventually medicated for severe anxiety and depression. It was not as much a result of the work, the people I worked with, or the people I served. It was as a result of me not being able to process all that I was ingesting. In some ways, it was an overuse injury, much like stress fractures on the legs of a runner. At the core of all of this was “compassion fatigue.” If you’re not familiar with this term, it is what happens when we give so much of ourselves, through feelings, that there is nothing left. We implode. It is the opposite of what sometimes happens in church, whenever we only receive the preaching and worship and refuse to give.
If you have been reading the devotions, and if you continue to seriously read them, you will undoubtedly be impressed by the Holy Spirit to act. And if you act in love for your immigrant neighbors, you will see things so powerful that you cannot unsee them. You will be transformed in a way that you cannot retreat from, and you will begin to act. When you act out of a Christian love for others, you always risk compassion fatigue. Below I will give you a few helpful guidelines for navigating compassion fatigue, which come partly from the book, A Mile in My Shoes, by Trevor Hudson and partly from other experiences I’ve had.
1– The Examined Life. — my father used to say a quote from Socrates all the time, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I think this can be salient in compassion work, because we always need to maintain a pulse check, so that our worthwhile life can go on living. Let me tell you a few of the warning signs for compassion fatigue:
A–increasing exhaustion. If in the course of serving people, you find that you constantly struggle with getting even the smallest task done, it might be time for a pause. For me, daily meditation and contemplative prayer break up the otherwise hectic rhythms of the day. The days when I’m faithful to this, I notice less exhaustion.
B–Resentment towards the people we are called to love and serve. On some level, we know when we are exhausted, even if we push through it. Even though assigning faults is not helpful, we often wonder, “who’s fault is it that I am this exhausted and weary?” If we start to resent the people we serve, it is a warning sign of what might be going on.
C–Lack of laughter and joy. The Greek word for compassion has a literal connotation of turning one’s guts upside down with feeling. Whenever this happens for long enough, we might only be able to feel the presence of the negative energy which seems to get our attention. If this is the case, you should not feel guilty for seeking laughter and joy, or for being around people who bring you laughter and joy.
2–Fighting compassion fatigue: being a compassionate neighbor to yourself. You are undoubtedly good at giving mercy and grace to other people, but do you give it to yourself?
A– Care for your body. We are complex creatures, mind, body, and spirit. What happens to one part of us eventually begins to happen to the rest. If you take care of your physical body–by eating right, exercising, and giving it what it needs–it will allow the rest of you to work better in the long run.
B– Do what you enjoy. Like I said above, you might feel guilty, given the extent of the needs around you, doing what you enjoy. But if you eventually stop doing what you enjoy, you will forget how to do it, and that will make the ascent out of the depth of compassion fatigue that much more difficult.
C–Process your pain. Whether physical, emotional, or spiritual, a wound that festers can be toxic. If you’re like me, you are part of many systems that reward you for not processing life, but for jumping rapidly between one task and the next. Carve out time in your day, the first thing, the last thing, or somewhere in between. People will not make time for you, so you must make time to process your pain in a way that keeps you living.
3–Fighting compassion fatigue: curb your tendency to compulsive caring. It is natural for us to have impulses, and in many ways Jesus was the most impulsive person we follow. However, his impulsivity was perfect, and he had immaculate self-care.
A–Why do you? If You compulsively care for others, make sure that your impulses are not trying to feed I need within you. Why do you become compulsive in caring for others? Is it because you have an unmet need to be needed?
B– Cut back. It can be good to curve your tendencies to compulsive caring. Even though you want to be at the front and center of caring for others, sometimes it is best to put you at the sideline and empower others to do the most central compassionate work. Sometimes it’s best to let others care for you. I.e. if you are a two on the Enneagram (If you don’t know what that is, watch Fr. Richard Rohr’s videos on YoutTube about it. Your life will be changed), you will be drawn to help others, but a lack of helping yourself or letting others help you will lead to disintegration
C–Share the load. A while back, I was reading about how a pair of well-trained draft horses can pull more than seven times as much as a single horse can pull. This metaphor shows that working together and becoming a strong team with at least one other person can dramatically reduce the effects of pulling a load by oneself.
4–Fighting compassion fatigue: develop a celebration lifestyle. Find ways to laugh with your neighbors. Unfortunately, church society has been so affected by the culture which separates the worship of God from everything else that we have failed to remember that Jesus likes a good celebration. Read again the quote from the beginning of this devotional. God is an integral part of who we are, because God created us. The work of the church is not just a work of serving and compassion, but it is a work of celebrating all that God does in us, through us, and around us. Like the 40 day journey to Easter, life should intentionally be broken up with feasting days (Every Sunday in Lent, when we take breaks from fasting). We have so much for which to give thanks. Make it a common practice in daily life. Celebrate often with others.
Reflect: what are one or two tangible things I can take from this? How might I save this wisdom, for when I have compassion fatigue?
Prayer: Lord Jesus, you are the one who taught us to have compassion. And so, you probably experienced compassion fatigue at some point. Please inhabit our prayers, as you live in our hearts, and give us sustenance for the journey. Amen.