Compassion Fatigue

Greater Kashmir

Call it ‘burn out’, ‘unintentional end point’ or ‘the cost of caring’— the condition of hopelessness or alienation is compassion fatigue where individuals develop a cynical attitude towards everything. Especially towards those who have suffered in one or the other way. In compassion fatigue, our response and behavior changes while dealing with those who have faced stress or trauma. We become indifferent, apathetic. We lose our capacity to extend sympathy beyond a certain point. We stop giving care and compassion.

Mostly observed among practitioners who are exposed to stress-related situations, like health and social workers, compassion fatigue is a direct corollary of the extent of the time these people stay put with the situation. It has been seen as a ‘secondary trauma’ that occurs after experiencing the anguish of others over and over again. We get numb and hard in our responses. To the extent that the suffering of others doesn’t appear suffering anymore. It gets ‘normal’; banal and humdrum.  The conditioning steals compassion.

Besides, compassion fatigue is related to a kind of conflict that emerges when compassionate people witness an uncaring and unresponsive institutional mechanism restraining the very spirit of compassion. This institutional heartlessness through various norms, laws and actions bolsters the fatigue. The structural constraints daunt people to be compassionate.

Navigating the turns and twists of life, we all want the world to be kind to us. And then, the tragic and uncertain times we live in; the vengeance and violence we witness; we expect people to be more capable of showing understanding and compassion.

The world needs healing and it can be done through compassion. Lending compassion can lead to longer lives, healthier habits and lesser levels of distress, and a greater sense of meaning in our life. In a world that often extols staying unconcerned and self-contained, we wrongly brush off being ‘stoic’ as our strength. The message most of us internalize is that nonchalance serves because otherwise, people take our pliability as a failing. But the reality remains that compassion is not any feeble notion of timidity or an assemblage of empty rhetoric. It is the fundamental spirit of our faith that makes no distinction between the suffering of others and that of one’s self. And teaches us that Almighty is Compassionate and loves compassion. And the one who is not compassionate, Almighty will not be compassionate to him.

So, the phenomenon of ‘fatigue’ creeping in our capacity to be compassionate is unnatural and impractical. None of us can disclaim compassion and detach or insulate ourselves from the pain of others. We can’t be merciless or heartless. We are made to feel and broaden the humanity in us. Our faith supplies the spirit for it.

Experts argue that being compassionate entails self-compassion. If it’s missing, being compassionate towards others is a difficult task. In a way, this school of thought purports that we have to put ourselves first. It contends that our genes are inescapably selfish since we are ‘programmed’ to pursue our interests at whatever cost. More so in today’s way of life, where the capitalist economy is intensely competitive and individualistic, it goes out of its way to encourage us to put ourselves first. As such, as per this school, altruism is an illusion or a pious dream that is unnatural to humanity.

However, the point is that compassion is inherently embedded in all of us. It’s a waking reality, a living dream. How much of it we disburse depends on many factors—our grooming, our idiosyncrasy, our beliefs and the set of experiences we imbibe from the big bad world we breathe in; where ruthlessness and spitefulness consume our souls, and compassion gets impaired.

In her book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong, the bestselling commentator on religious affairs, discusses a system of compassion where we need to put other people first and make ourselves extremely uncomfortable after looking at the pain of the world. She refers to the holy Quran, calling it “basically a cry for compassion.”

Bottomline: The fact is that compassion is neither a limited resource nor is it a relative entity. Compassion is a psychological response that is unconditional and absolute. Creator has made humans sensitive and empathetic, and this character distinguishes them from other species. Compassion is an emotional resonance that makes us feel the plight of others in distress and invokes action to alleviate the same. That’s why compassion is also known as ‘emotion in operation’.