Compassion Fatigue – Hope for the Hardening Heart

When I was eight years old, I spent a sunny Saturday reading alone in the stacks of the public library. The book I read told an unbelievable story, a horrible but true story about events that happened in my parents’ lifetime in Germany. I could barely take it in but I also couldn’t turn away. The book was called “In the Hell of Auschwitz”.

Later that year, I went door to door to trick or treat for Unicef. One door opened and an angry man shouted into my face that I was collecting money for people who killed our boys in a place called Vietnam and who burned little children and didn’t I know that we shouldn’t help people who would kill us if we were walking down their street? Sobbing my way home, I recall my red-faced father sputtering that the man had no business scaring a little girl with politics. I didn’t know what politics were but it motivated me to look up Vietnam in the Atlas and study the photos in Life magazine back at the library.

As a teen-ager, I collected clothing for earthquake victims in Nicaragua and fasted to save money to buy food for people who were starving from the famine in Ethiopia. I petitioned our church missions committee not to serve donuts and coffee on the nights we were watching film footage of the hungry people across the world and I wrote impassioned letters to the editor about how one person can make a difference.

As the years passed, I would watch movies about killing fields in Cambodia, people who mysteriously disappeared in El Salvador and Columbia, wars between Hutus and Tutsis, ethnic cleansing of Serbs, Albanians and Bosnians, lost boys from Sudan, oppressed women in Afghanistan and the plight of the urban poor in America. I’ve seen footage of disasters from cult suicides to tsunamis to floods to hurricanes to earthquakes. I’ve read reports on human trafficking and child abductions. I’ve packed shoeboxes with toothbrushes, toys and tracts, sent money, written letters and wept in prayer over people whose names I may never know and whose faces I’ve only seen in news footage or photos on the web.

So now I find I am facing a kind of heart muscle fatigue. Like a detached retina that blurs the vision and leads, eventually, to blindness, I experience detached empathy that blurs my compassion and leads; eventually I’m certain, to emotional paralysis. One telling symptom is that I can now watch the evening news as if it were just another drama lead-in to the Tonight Show. Another is that I weep with less frequency. And I think that if I met the little girl I once was who spilled tears onto the hardwood floors of the library and searched closets for coats and shoes to pack into boxes for strangers, I would feel jaded and ashamed.

But this is my flesh talking. In a world without Christ, faced with a constant onslaught of evil, disaster, human suffering and need, our only sensible recourse would be to harden our hearts and choose to save ourselves.

But, in a world with Christ, we have a source of continual renewal of the resources of the heart. He is the fountain of youthful compassion, He is the rest for the empathetically weary, He is the healer of broken sympathies and the softener of hardened hearts.

In Galatians 6:9-10, Paul encourages us: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”

It is not my job to save the world. Jesus has already done that. But once again, I find the answer is to press deeper into the heart of God and seek refreshment and renewal of emotional resources there so that my heart can still be broken by those things that break the heart of God.

He knew there would be a generation that could see the suffering of the world on a cell phone. He is not caught off guard by the barrage of needs now accessible to us through technology and global communication. He was born in a stable but He transcends time and space and digital circuitry.

He is able to renew our hearts.

I believed this as at eight and I believe this at forty-eight.

It’s harder to believe now – some days. And yet easier, too, because I’ve experienced the renewing of my heart so many times despite my natural inclination and efforts to protect it behind a wall of cavalier dispassion.

The truth is that compassion is not measured by my capacity to produce tears but by my continual willingness to act, to give, to reach out, to pray, to intercede, to advocate, to sacrifice. Love is not an impulse or emotion; it is the act of laying down my life for another.

Are you experiencing compassion fatigue? Don’t be afraid but don’t yield to it either. Bring your beat up heart to God who makes all things new.

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6 Comments

    The Conversation

  1. dlynne222 says:

    I can’t imagine you without tearful compassion, even if it’s within. Great one Lori.

  2. Cheri says:

    My favorite paragraph: It is not my job to save the world. Jesus has already done that. But once again, I find the answer is to press deeper into the heart of God and seek refreshment and renewal of emotional resources there so that my heart can still be broken by those things that break the heart of God.

    I so hear you, Lori. With the technology available to us today, we are even more in touch with the atrocities in this world, and it can be so overwhelming.

    Thanks for an encouraging post.

    Cheri

  3. You are both wonderfully encouraging sisters in Christ. Thank you!

  4. Jennifer says:

    This week I’ve been asking God why I have to feel things so much. It’s just been a week of feeling the hurts of others. Most weeks I’d hit the hardhearted end of the spectrum, but not this week. I found your post encouraging. I appreciate the reminder that this is how it’s supposed to be. How am I to help (well) if I don’t feel the pain of others in some way? And how do I expect to share in their joy if I don’t feel their earier pain? Thanks for the reminder that God made us this entangled way for our good, not to do us in! 🙂

  5. Jen, I do think that people with certain spiritual gifts (say, mercy) feel the pain of others in a more powerful way but we’re all called to share in the suffering of others. I think the key is to bring that pain to Jesus again and again so it doesn’t overwhelm us and to share it with the body of Christ so we know we are not alone.

  6. Andrea says:

    Lori,

    You have an award at arise 2 write. You inspire me and truly deserve it…far more than I did!

    Hugs,
    andrea