There’s a well-known phenomenon among marathon runners known as ‘the wall’. It’s the point where the body runs out of carbohydrates to burn and makes it abundantly clear that the runner needs to stop running, by means of a wave of intense fatigue that makes it feel almost impossible to keep on going.
I think our hearts have an analogous phenomenon, a compassion or empathy wall that makes the needs of the world seem too huge to bear. This is especially a problem for people in helping professions — social workers, counsellors and therapists, pastors and priests, and others whose vocation and job it is to help others. But it’s also a problem for all people of good conscience, whether that’s a political commitment to human rights and dignity or a faith commitment to pursuing mercy, compassion, love, and justice for all God’s creation (or both). I know as a Christian, it’s pretty daunting to try to live in a way that does justice to all 7 billion of my neighbours. (Not to mention the deep desire to respect all creation.)
While I have no doubt that empathy is the only way forward — personally, politically, and socially, I also have no doubt that this empathy is hard work. There’s a reason why it’s the road less traveled. There’s a reason why we’re all so prone to turn inward and close our eyes to the pain of the world. There’s a reason why it’s so tempting to close the gates and let those outside fend for themselves. Compassion is exhausting. It takes great strength of character, energy and will to care. Caring is for the strong. But sometimes, even the strong can hit the wall.
Earlier this week I found myself hitting a compassion wall. From friends and family going through difficult times, to the increasingly crazy local, provincial, national, and international news, to the increasingly dire ecological crisis (and North American democracies’ unwillingness to do anything about it) — it all just got a bit much for me. I felt paralyzed by the need — the legitimate need — all around me. I felt like I was going to drown in the injustices of economics, education, race, gender, sexuality, history, politics, and ecology.
Thankfully it didn’t last for long, but as I’ve been reflecting on the experience, I’ve found a bit of advice that’s helpful for preventing this kind of compassion or empathy fatigue.
- Sleep, to Combat Exhaustion: One of the biggest features of empathy fatigue is exhaustion. This is psychological but also physical. I don’t think the importance of sleep can be stressed enough. Sleep is the closest thing we have to a cure-all, and not getting enough of it can have a huge impact not only on our day-to-day performance in life but on our mood and ability to cope. As it happens, this was probably my problem earlier this week; it came as no surprise that I hit my compassion wall after a few consecutive bad sleeps.
- Heart Health, to Combat Emptiness: I’m not talking about lowering blood cholesterol levels here (though, let’s be honest — that doesn’t hurt!), but about making sure we’re caring for our spiritual hearts and being good to ourselves. This is where our sacred practices, spiritual disciplines, and communities of friends and family come in. Not only do our disciplines train us for the hard work of compassion, but they also refill the tank when we’re feeling like we’re running on empty. For me this week, my journaling practice enabled me to process my feeling of paralysis and pushed me through to the other side. This was helped by related practices, like lectio divina, identifying the story I was telling myself, and just allowing myself to feel what I was feeling.
- Scoping, to Combat Feeling Impotent: Part of the problem in our global world is that we’re so much more aware of the need of the whole world. When Jesus told his followers that loving their neighbour meant loving everyone, most of them were probably not going to come across more than a few thousand people and their stories in the course of their whole lives. We don’t have that luxury; we know we have 7 billion neighbours and that our ethical and economic choices impact them and this is where the paralysis can set in. Focusing on the need in front of you makes a tangible and obvious difference. You might not be able to improve the day of 7 billion people, but you can improve the day of the few people who cross your path.
- Perspective, to Combat Feeling Overwhelmed: As much as we may be more aware of the need of the world than ever before, it’s important to note that if ever there was a Golden Age of human history, we’re in it. It’s counter-intuitive because of the doom and gloom that drives the news media and the legitimate ecological precipice we’re on, but facts are facts, and a lower percentage of the world’s population is living in extreme poverty, is illiterate, or dying in childbirth or before the age of 5 than ever before.
- Boundaries, to Combat Helper Rebellion: We’re not built to go 24/7. Take the time you need to read a book, cuddle your child, or watch television. This will almost certainly mean saying no to people. Being available doesn’t mean being available all of the time. That’s a recipe for disaster. Make sure you schedule days off and guard them ferociously. This doesn’t mean that there can’t be exceptions from time to time. But, make sure the exceptions really are exceptional.
Some might argue that all of these suggestions are selfish. And in a way they are. But they are selfish in the best possible way. Like the airplane safety demonstration says, you have to put on your own mask before you can help anyone else.
And here’s where the running analogy comes back into play. Life is the ultimate marathon, and a life of empathy can often feel like an ultramarathon. It’s important to set ourselves up for success as much as possible, to do the little things we know we need to do to ensure we can “run with perseverance the race set out before us” (Hebrews 13.1).