Compassion Fatigue and the Cost of Discipleship

I came across the concept of compassion fatigue through this article by Elisa Gabbert in the Guardian. She asked whether, in an era of 24 hour news updates and daily political crises, it’s possible to avoid becoming numb to the suffering in our world.

Compassion fatigue was first observed in the world of medicine and care work – as a result of witnessing daily the suffering of others, people who work in these jobs begin to suffer themselves from exhaustion and mental ill health. Gabbert says that the term is now also used to refer to the effects on the general population of being ‘saturated with pleas for attention’. Increasingly graphic depictions of global disasters, as well as increasing access to news via push notifications and social media, means that we are confronted more than ever with the suffering of others – but this doesn’t necessarily mean that we are more concerned than ever by what we’re seeing.

In fact, this often results in lessened compassion and empathy as we attempt to switch off in order to preserve our energy and wellbeing. Especially when we have little or no control over the situation we’re seeing, we are left feeling more powerless and desolate than ever, and so we look away. This feeling of being overwhelmed is certainly something I have experienced, and I’m not alone. As this worsens, it could have devastating effects, not only on our wellbeing, but on the energy and enthusiasm we put into activism and political engagement. If we are burned out just from hearing about everything that is wrong in the world, how can we even begin to go about putting it right?

What I am led to wonder is this: how does our faith speak to a population battling compassion fatigue?

The verse which comes to my mind is Matthew 11:28-30 – ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest… For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ Jesus calls us when we feel most weighed down by the darkness of the world to find our rest in Him. But this can feel like avoidance – surely Jesus isn’t calling us to ignore the plights of the needy?

Perhaps, rather than refusing to acknowledge darkness, Jesus calls us to find Him in the very act of witnessing to the suffering we see around us. In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer describes the paradoxical nature of taking up our cross as disciples – it is in the very act of giving up our lives that we find our eternal life in Jesus. The cross, the place we most fear going, is the one place we will surely find salvation, for it is where we find Jesus. Rather than discipleship leading us to avoid suffering, it takes us right to the heart of it; but what we find there is the assurance that when we confront it, we will not be alone. In this communion with the divine, we find peace and comfort within suffering.

So how should we as Christians be responding to this constant stream of harrowing news? I don’t at all think that we should be self-sacrificially reading every troubling news story in an eager attempt to throw ourselves deliberately into the anguish of the world. But Jesus calls us to love. Knowing that we are accompanied by a power greater than ourselves, than the world, than our minds can comprehend, we are enabled to stay compassionate, called to keep our hearts open to those around us.

And most importantly, Jesus calls us to act. We are empowered to overcome feelings of despair and do what little we can, hopeful in the knowledge that this divine power is at work through even our smallest actions.