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Today, I want to talk about something called “compassion fatigue.” It’s a mental health condition with, I think, spiritual roots. The Canadian Medical Association defines compassion fatigue as “the cost of caring for others or for their emotional pain, resulting from the desire to help relieve the suffering of others. It is also known as vicarious or secondary trauma, referencing the way that other people’s trauma can become [our] own. The symptoms of compassion fatigue make it more difficult to provide . . . care and to perform other duties.”

Symptoms of compassion fatigue include: “feelings of helplessness and powerlessness in the face of suffering; reduced feelings of empathy and sensitivity; feeling detached, numb and emotionally disconnected; loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy; difficulty concentrating and making decisions; increased conflict in personal relationships; neglect of your own self-care withdrawal and self-isolation; and an increase in substance use as a form of self-medication.”

Is any of this sounding familiar? I wonder if Jesus experienced compassion fatigue, with the crowds pressing in on him all the time? (Mark 5:21-43) In a recent blog post, Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber asks her readers, “What uncomplicatedly human things do you do for yourself to help you feel compassion for yourself?

She talks about all of the ways in late-stage capitalism, we heap expectation upon expectation on ourselves as a species. Sometimes it’s the pressure to work longer hours, or to add more to our online shopping carts. Sometimes it’s to care for children and aging parents while somehow earning enough to pay the mortgage. Sometimes it’s the expectation to be informed and up to date about every humanitarian crisis currently going on in the world. We are, in this day and age, a species inundated with stimuli, media, and opportunity to care.

We could say that our overworking and overconsuming is a result of our selfishness and pride. There is an aspect of that, to be sure. But, for today, I want to take a different lens. 

Nadia Bolz-Weber goes on to say, “When this world feels overwhelming to me, I try and remember what I learned from [journalist] Sebastian Junger - that a baby born today is biologically identical to a baby born during the ice age. Which means we are constantly trying to run Mac OS 14 Sonoma on 1984 Apple Macintosh computers and they keep glitching out: anxiety, loneliness, depression, addiction, disease. . . . The human psyche didn’t develop to be able to respond to and hold the information about every form of suffering and violence that happens to every person each minute of the day across the entire planet. Our psyches were developed to respond to and hold the information about the suffering and violence that is happening in our foraging band, tribe or village.”

The human propensity to “overachieve” or to “overcare” is no new problem, of course. Paul knew it well when writing to the early Christians in Corinth (2 Corinthians 8:7-15). 

“You excel in everything,” he writes, “in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you.”

“So we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” 

He goes on to remind them that the biggest thing these tired, stressed out people could do for one another was to “overachieve” in being human with each other. You know, like Jesus was with them. Forget trying to outdo one another in how much money they could make, or how informed they could be about the latest political debate, forget trying to pretend that in our urban, housing-insecure culture that any of us have the capacity to be caring for others on both ends of the life spectrum at the same time—just be real, be vulnerable with one another. 

The late Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, puts it this way: “You do so well in so many things—you trust God, you’re articulate, you’re insightful, you’re passionate, you love us—now, do your best in this, too. . . . You are familiar with the generosity of our Master, Jesus Christ. Rich as he was, he gave it all away for us—in one stroke he became poor.”

What Paul is getting at is that it’s in our nature to be generous. We are a species that delights in giving ourselves away. We love to care for people, to have compassion for others. It brings us joy and meaning! But, there is a risk: that we will give ourselves away to the point of extinction.

Friends, when it comes to our efforts to be of service to the world, to be compassionate, for the sake of the God who gave it all away to become one of us, let us, too, become human again. In our desire to be generous, may we be generous in knowing our limits, in knowing our humanity, 

At the end of her blog post, Nadia Bolz-Weber writes a list of uncomplicatedly human things that she does when feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of the world. First and foremost, she says, “I try and stop ordering [stuff] on Amazon.”

“I go outside,” she continues.

“I walk. A lot. I eat food made out of food. I make myself be around other people, preferably while collectively doing something. I sing with others. I touch and am touched. I try to be of service to others. (easy). I try to receive help from others. (much harder).”


Works referenced:

“Compassion fatigue” at Canadian Medical Association, accessed online.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Compassionate thoughts us for ice-age brained Homo Sapiens living in late stage capitalism” at The Corners, accessed online.

Eugene Peterson, “2 Corinthians 8” in The Message, accessed online.