Christians around the world are being infected with a disease. If left unchecked, the spread of this disease can cause apathy, detachment, and feelings of insensitivity to the world’s injustices. Striking without warning, this disease can hit at any time. I, myself, have suffered from it.
It’s called compassion fatigue.
Defining the Disease
Julia Mateer describes compassion fatigue as “an overwhelming feeling of negativity, both emotional and physical fatigue, and an underlying sense of hopelessness.” A person can easily become discouraged when plagued by the overwhelming task ahead: What can I really do to help the 750 million people around the world who lack access to clean water? How can I stop 21,000 people from dying of hunger every day? I’m powerless to help.
While many would assume that compassion fatigue must affect those who are hopeless or overworked, in reality it will most likely affect people who are exhausting themselves in ministry, those who are simply trying to make a difference but become paralyzed by the weight of the world’s injustices. So how does this happen?
Too Much Information
“24,000 Killed, Injured by Islamic State; Children Used as Soldiers, Women Sold as Sex Slaves.” “21 Million People Are Victims of Forced Labor.” “War Has Forced Half of Syrians from Their Homes.” It doesn’t take long to do a news search of the world’s injustices before you’re bombarded with headlines like these. We live in a media-saturated information age, and we know what’s happening around the globe with just a few clicks of a mouse.
There is an old phrase in journalism: “If it bleeds, it reads.” Though depressing, this quote is quite true. As a recent college graduate whose passions lie in the fields of international relations and journalism, I’m constantly bombarded with stories of human suffering and need. The more I learn, the more I am burdened by the world’s injustices. Noticeably absent from most news stories are solutions to the world’s largest issues or tangible ways people can help. It’s all too easy for me to become depressed by the injustices and tragedies and stop there without thinking through how I can actually respond.
There’s a depressing truth in this quotation that is often attributed to Joseph Stalin: “When one person dies, it’s a tragedy, but when a million people die, it’s a statistic.” NPR highlights a study that claims when people hear a problem has a large scope, the chances of them showing compassion toward that cause—even in a small way—are reduced because they feel overwhelmed. Psychologist Paul Slovic shares that “as the numbers grow, we sort of lose the emotional connection to the people who are in need. . . . People may start to ask, ‘Well, this is such a big problem. Is my donation going to be effective in any way?’”
When a situation seems desperately hopeless, it gets harder to care about it. And then it becomes even harder to take action.
“Many of us have this Western-American-Christian mindset that these problems are just fixable,” says Ruth Bell Olsson, a strategic partnership consultant at Bethany Christian Services. She goes on to explain that often we believe “if we pray hard and we show up and we give our $10 dollars, then it’s going to go away.” However, reality shows us that this mindset is simply untrue and can be quite unhealthy. People around the world give a great deal of money to many different organizations to end poverty, hunger, and slavery, and yet all these problems still exist in our world and are not going to be fixed anytime soon.
Jesus reminds us that in this current world, we will always have brokenness, but Christians do not have the luxury of waiting around for Jesus’ return to fix everything. Our call throughout the Bible is clear: We must love and serve those around us, even when we feel like we just can’t care for one more issue.
While the Bible does not speak directly about how Christians can best avoid compassion fatigue, the Bible does clearly tell us to follow the example of Christ and show compassion as we serve others. As Christ’s ambassadors on earth, we’re called to do more than just talk and share words about Christ; we must live out our faith in action.
Chris Palusky, the vice president for private funding at World Vision, reminds us that although humans are finite beings, “the good news is that Christ’s compassion is not finite. It’s infinite. So we can rely on Christ to help us.” Christ’s compassion can help us address—instead of avoid—the pain in this world, he says.
In order to avoid getting overwhelmed with the stress and fatigue that often accompanies learning more about the issues of the world, we must remember to heed the call to “cast all our cares” onto the one who cares for us. Christ has promised to be with us in any hardship, even in the fatigue that might keep us from acting on issues we desperately want to fix.
Combatting Compassion Fatigue
“When you lean into something that’s really big, it might cost you your life, it might cost you your safety, it might cost you your comfort,” Olsson says. “And you might not fix it—but the holiness, I think, is in the pursuit.” Addressing the pain in this world as we show compassion isn’t an easy task, but it is a holy one. So here are a few practical ways to combat compassion fatigue in your own life.
1. Assess your enthusiasm. If some act of service is ineffective or exhausting, try something else, Olsson says. Look for a service opportunity that brings you energy instead of drains you. There are many different opportunities to help others, so find something that you’re passionate about and jump in.
2. Know your limitations. In navigating a world full of need, it’s essential to realize that you are only one person. God has not called you to rectify all the sin and brokenness in the world, so don’t try to fix it all. You can’t help fix the clean water crisis and the hunger crisis and the global sex trade and the spread of terrorism. “Choose one thing and say, ‘I can do something. God can use me in this,’” Palusky says. Learn as much as you can about that issue and how you can help. This can bring determination, a sense of loyalty, and purpose to a complex issue.
3. Contemplate often. Both action and contemplation are essential elements of the spiritual life, Olsson says. “We need to be deeply inward people in order to be deeply outward people,” she explains. Throughout the journey of showing compassion to others, we need to foster a rhythm of both inward and outward actions, she says. Make sure you’re fostering habits of self-care, gaining support from your community, and taking the time to rejuvenate yourself in order to help keep compassion fatigue at bay.
Don’t Grow Weary
In Galatians, Paul encouraged the early Christians to never give up or grow weary in the pursuit of doing good. While it may seem easy to feel fatigued by all the world’s injustices, Olsson reminds us: “You don’t have to save the world tomorrow; you just have to be faithful today.” Christians can rest in the glorious reality that God is in control and Christ has overcome the world and all its evils. Through Jesus, we are enabled with all the strength that we’ll ever need to show compassion toward those we encounter.
Lauren Laskowski is a former editorial intern for Today’s Christian Woman and a recent Wheaton College graduate with a BA in international relations and a journalism certificate. Lauren is currently living in Washington, D.C. where she works for the US government.