Several months ago, on my way to a meeting, I heard an individual on the radio use a term I don’t recall having heard before. Specifically the individual used the term “compassion fatigue.” Since I had tuned in late to the program, I didn’t hear the full context of the speaker’s comments. From what I heard, though, the individual used this phrase to describe the fact that often people can become so overwhelmed with issues, circumstances, injustices and causes that call for a response of care and compassion, that as a result they simply shut down, tune things out, and turn more and more inward.
I suspect that for all of us there are times when we are so overwhelmed by the terrible nature of something or some things, that we become paralyzed and do nothing. In part this is understandable. As humans, we can only endure seeing so much pain or so many needs before we are overwhelmed and simply shut down for a while. On a permanent basis, I don’t know that we are able to bear the pain, the sadness and the sorrows of the world. Perhaps some of us are called and are capable of doing this—Blessed Mother Teresa comes to mind—but I wonder if this is possible for the majority of us. Sometimes we do need to simply shut down for a while. I think there is a difference, though, between those times when we shut down and do nothing, and those times when we give in completely to “compassion fatigue” and simply stop caring. When we let ourselves stop caring by telling ourselves that we can’t deal with all the pain and hardship, something is terribly wrong.
As Christians, our call and our challenge is to be the heart, the hands, the voice, and the face of Christ in our world. We may not do this well. At times we may temporarily give in to “compassion fatigue.” The one thing we cannot do, though, is let this become a permanent condition. We can’t shut our eyes to the pain and need around us. We can’t be concerned only with ourselves.
Yes, with all the pain and hardship in the world, and indeed with all the pain and hardship that exists all around us, it would be easy to give in to “compassion fatigue” on a permanent basis. This is not an option for us as Christians, however. I believe this is the reason why this season of Lent is so important. It challenges us to see beyond ourselves to the needs of others. It calls us to be more caring and compassionate and it invites us to try harder to show and share Christ in our words and actions. We may not do this very well. (I fail at it regularly.) I also know and believe, though, that it is what we are called to do and be as followers of Jesus.
My prayer for us during this season of Lent is that it will be a time for our care and compassion to be renewed and strengthened, so that we might truly be the heart, the hands, the voice and face of Christ in our world.