The (Not So) Modern Phenomenon Of Compassion Fatigue

On 8 April 2014 Christianity Today referred to a growing phenomenon of “compassion fatigue” during a later media release on after a series of natural disasters:

“Earthquakes and tsunamis. Hurricanes and tornadoes. War and famine. Disasters like these consistently raise the question: Where is a good God in all of this? Even as Christians wrestle with this question, they continue to send out workers and supplies to bring what relief they can. But logistical challenges, financial problems, and (particularly in recent years) the continual arrival of one disaster after another can all add up to create “compassion fatigue” for both relief workers and the people who support them.

So what is this phenomenon? And why is it a serious problem for Christian mission and charity projects?

This is how Wikipedia defines “compassion fatigue”:

“Compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress (STS), is a condition characterized by a gradual lessening of compassion over time. It is common among individuals that work directly with trauma victims such as nurses, psychologists, and first responders. It was first diagnosed in nurses in the 1950s. Sufferers can exhibit several symptoms including hopelessness, a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares, and a pervasive negative attitude. This can have detrimental effects on individuals, both professionally and personally, including a decrease in productivity, the inability to focus, and the development of new feelings of incompetency and self-doubt.[1]

“Journalism analysts argue that the media has caused widespread compassion fatigue in society by saturating newspapers and news shows with often decontextualized images and stories of tragedy and suffering. This has caused the public to become cynical, or become resistant to helping people who are suffering”[2].

I could write a very long list of legendary Christian leaders who, although they `prospered’ in their faith and their relationships with others, and lived blessed lives, were economically poor for most of their lives of ministry and mission.

Most of these legendary figures were faith heroes who lived, worked among and practised God’s mercy, justice and compassion practically among the poor, socially ostracised and disreputable as a main feature and focus of preference when directing their life’s work.

Remember Francis of Assisi, The Twelve Apostles, most of the OT prophets, John the Baptist and finally Jesus himself, all predominantly work among the poor, advocated justice, mercy and compassion for the poor, lived among the poor, were frequently poor economically themselves, and were scandalized by rich elites through false accusations and unjust smears against their reputations for their work among the poor. And we all know that one of the key reasons why some of these including Christ were hated and sometimes murdered by ruling class elites was because their embracing the poor with love, healing, compassion, mercy and inclusion into a radically serving and loving community was both scandalous and seen as revolutionary by ruling status quo’s and their institutional utilities of government.

Nowhere in the Gospel, the prophets or the writing of the Apostles do I witness any of the faithful scapegoat the poor by blaming victims of injustice or disasters out of their own control for being the chief causes of their own victimization.

Nor do I witness these same leaders using the excuse of “compassion fatigue” to abrogate from being compassionate and merciful toward the poor. Although I am fairly sure they did become tired and fatigued, and in need of time and space to just “chill out” from time to time in order to cope and not to burn out.

Andrew Park (April 2014) ICDF Network Coordinator – Creative Arts & Social Concern

[You can read a researched essay on the many facets of “Compassion Fatigue” from Andrew’s perspective]


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