Compassion Care or Compassion Fatigue?

Front line staff have been pushing themselves to provide compassionate care to people who are in a vulnerable stage of life, and many of these workers have gone over and above what is expected of them. I have witnessed staff members giving haircuts when hair salons are shut down, donating clothes to a client in need, volunteering to help put up a Christmas tree in the chapel after working an overnight shift, or taking some of their break time to sit with a dying resident. These acts of kindness contribute to an atmosphere of care and compassion where people enjoy their work, and the residents and clients feel well-cared for and respected.

For many people, these acts of kindness are life-giving rituals of care. They help us feel good about ourselves. They provide meaning and purpose to our lives. For some, it is in loving others that they feel they are contributing to the greater good, and making the world a better place. Isn’t this what we are called to do as Christians?  

Micah 6:8 tells us that God requires Christians and the Church to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly Social justice issues are often lifted up in the media and are an important part of working together in Christian communities. Kindness is a lovely value.  Most of us enjoy being givers (and receivers) of kindnesses and can list numerous times when we have witnessed them.  But walking humbly is an area that I find more difficult to live out with purpose and vision.  It is not that I struggle with pride or arrogance more than others do, but I have had to put more thought into what it looks like to walk humbly. I have recognized some habits of mine that contribute to fatigue, and some of which could even be considered arrogant. Given these realizations, I believe a lack of humility can be a direct contributor to compassion fatigue. 

I recently attended an online webinar with Gabor Maté, a respected speaker and best-selling author, on the topic of Compassion Fatigue. One important piece of wisdom I took from that webinar was that compassion fatigue is a misnomer.  It should rather be labeled “lack-of-compassion fatigue.” Caregivers can be very good at denying compassion to themselves. 

Offering compassion to others, like giving kindness, does not cause fatigue. In fact, it is often life-giving, helping us to share in the amazing gift of God’s love, and to feel a part of a community. Acting on values such as kindness, mercy, and justice can give meaning and purpose to our lives.  It can bring us joy and revive our spirits when we offer a small kindness to another. But we should also extend these kindnesses to ourselves. We are, first of all, responsible for our own well-being.   

When we feel that we are the only ones who can meet a certain need or when we frequently push down our boundaries of time, energy, and responsibility without replenishing these resources, we are not demonstrating humility. Rather, we are giving in to a form of pride and arrogance

This attitude demonstrates a lack of dependence on God as well as interdependence on one another. It is easy to understand how we can become run-down and exhausted when we think that we are the only person who can fulfill a certain need. Or when we try to do things on our own. Or when we don’t take time to reflect on our limitations and seek the guidance of the Source of all Life.    

In order to offer care and compassion to others in trying times, rituals are essential. Rituals can be defined as habits with a spiritual purpose. They feed our soul and help us connect to the Holy One. They are tangible, measurable acts that restore our energy and give us direction and guidance. It is essential that we recognize these rituals as key contributors to our spiritual and mental wellbeing. 

There are times when my life feels busier than usual; when the responsibilities of work, home, family, and social life seemingly demand more of my time than I can give. Sometimes, this is when I am tempted to put aside my self-care practices and just do the things that have a more recognized value.  Stresses can distract me from what I know is self-compassion. I might give up a walk to attend to the demands that are shouting louder. I consider cutting short my morning quiet time to complete the tasks which others might notice. Or, I turn on the television late in the evening instead of going to bed when I am tired. These habits, while they don’t really take any physical energy, do not help me feel rested.  Instead, they drain my energy and contribute to compassion fatigue. 

I recall a particularly difficult time when it felt like my life was being turned upside down. It was the rituals of Bible reading and prayer, of walking every morning, and of spending time with good friends that kept me going. Intentionally tending to my spiritual, physical, and social needs enabled me to continue caring for my family, pursue the work I enjoyed, and stay involved in the ministries that were important to me. 

In my work in spiritual health, I sometimes meet individuals who have well-established habits they find meaningfulSometimes these rituals involve religious pursuits, but they may also involve interests in music, the creative arts, physical activity, poetry, gardening and creation care, or finding ways to express their love to members of their family. Recognizing the value of intentionally making time for these activities can protect us from compassion fatigue and remind us that our strength comes from GodAnd, if we do make time for these activities on a regular basis, they can sustain us, help us to feel alive, and enable us to care for those people in our world who need it most.

Joan Crabtree serves as People’s Warden at St. Peter’s Parish. She also enjoys working as the lead spiritual health practitioner at Misericordia Health Centre, and sometimes struggles to fit in all of her important rituals of self-care. 

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