It seems these days there’s always another movement or cause beckoning to us for our wholehearted, emphatic support. But when does it all become too much?
I remember when I first saw Blackfish, the harrowing documentary that attempted to tell of the mistreatment of whales owned by SeaWorld. I saw these animals living unfulfilling lives, and felt that someone needed to do something about it. Then, fast forward a few years to when I watched a grainy, cell-phone-captured video of the horrifying treatment of cows in slaughterhouses. I tried going vegan for a while.
And over the next few years, we became more consistently faced with the nonstop tragedies of the world, all being reported on our 24-hour news cycle. We saw the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in response to police brutality, #MeToo survivors coming forward with their chilling stories of abuse, families of children lost in school shootings pleading for the public to support gun control measures, tales of young girls being kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery. These days, the latest issue taking over the news is, of course, the lives being lost to coronavirus.
We live in a broken world, with tragedy and hardship everywhere we cast our eyes, and many of us feel the need to fix it all.
I’ve felt compelled to care deeply about each and every one of these things, goaded into it by a society that labels us part of the problem if we don’t get upset about all of the injustices of the world, angrily post about them on social media four times a day, show up at protests, or give our money, time, or energy. But having so much to care about inevitably leads to compassion fatigue.
The Link between Caring and Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue is a feeling of numbness or inability to feel compassion for others or to empathize with them, directly linked to being inundated with stories of misfortune. Most often, welfare workers, medical professionals, vets, police officers, firefighters, journalists, and those in similar professions tend to experience compassion fatigue due to their nonstop exposure to others’ hardships.
Compassion fatigue is a feeling of numbness or inability to feel compassion for others or to empathize with them, directly linked to being inundated with stories of misfortune.
But it’s not just a lack of empathy that’s caused by compassion fatigue — other symptoms include isolation, ignoring our own emotions, loss of happiness in life, alcohol or drug abuse, and insomnia. It’s safe to say that our culture’s obsession with “caring” is having numerous negative effects on our own health.
How Should We Care?
#BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, shootings, and sex trafficking are all worth caring about. This isn’t to say we can’t acknowledge the importance of our society’s conversation about them, but to attempt to become a warrior of all isn’t realistic and only leads to a bad case of compassion fatigue.
This means focusing our time on not every single cause that tugs at our heartstrings, but one or two that align most closely with our lives, values, and deepest desires.
And as much as caring about the misfortune of others is an admirable quality we should all strive for, splitting our empathy between 17 causes, however worthy they may be, is not only a poor use of our time and emotionally grueling for us, it ultimately doesn’t end up doing much for the cause we try to care so much about. This means focusing our time on not every single cause that tugs at our heartstrings, but one or two that align most closely with our lives, values, and deepest desires.
Closing Thoughts: Focus on Changing Yourself First
We live in a broken world, with tragedy and hardship everywhere we cast our eyes, and many of us feel the need to fix it all — to make the world a better place. But we’re limited beings. Our time and energy are finite, we struggle to even fix things about our own lives, and during quarantine, we’ve only become more lonely and hopeless. And the hard truth is that there’s so much we simply can’t change when we have ourselves spread thin.
Rather than allowing all of our energy to be focused outwardly, we need to first focus it inwardly. The very first thing we need to become passionate about changing, before anything about the world, is ourselves — focusing on dealing with our demons, issues left over from childhood, or unhealthy coping mechanisms. After all, we can’t be of much help to those who need it when we ourselves are in deep, unrealized need.
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