Compassion Fatigue


Generally when I read things that Nicholas Kristof is writing, I am simultaneously crying and pumping my fist in the air (my sign of resonating truth). Honestly, my spouse will be at his desk and turn at the sound of my sniffle to see if I am ok, see my fist pump and ask, “Kristof?” His New York Times article, “On Top of Famine, Unspeakable Violence” is no different.

Kristof writes of the continued famine in Somalia, and how women who are trying to escape it can anticipate robbery and rape on their way to the world’s largest refugee camp. It is a horrible story, but I stay emotionally unattached. The story is familiar, as are the pictures. It is a reality I cannot connect with. It is violence, suffering and evil I will never face. The numbers are so staggering that my mind cannot actually translate them into something I can see. The story stays in my head, and never drops into my heart. I do not want to work to see my place in the story.

But the article is not finished at the end of the reporting:

Americans also suffer from compassion fatigue, and that brings me to a final point. In a previous column from Dadaab, I told of a father of eight who had lost two of his children to starvation and feared that he would lose three more. Many readers responded bluntly that when men have eight children, it is pointless to help. Saving Somalis, they say, reflects a soggy sentimentality and runs against a Malthusian constraint of mouths multiplying more rapidly than food.
This view is both repulsive and wrong. I often write about the need for more family planning, but Somalis have eight children partly because they know that several may die. If we help save lives now so that parents can be confident their kids will survive, family size will drop. Likewise, educate girls and they will have fewer children….
We mustn’t turn away from starving children because their mothers had no access to education or contraception. It would be monstrous to allow Somalis to starve to death because they lost the same lottery of birth that all of us won.

Compassion fatigue. The idea went straight to my heart. My favorite definition of compassion you will not find on a google search. A woman said it while I was working at a day shelter for women, “Compassion is suspending judgment just long enough to get curious and ask her to tell her story.” We have compassion fatigue.

There are some who have not heard enough stories, who do not take the time to understand the complexity of injustice on a micro and macro level. They skip curiosity and jump to judgment, using their lives as a model.

There are others who have compassion fatigue because they have heard too many stories. With our access to information, they can know a lot about everything without committing themselves to working to dismantle one injustice. They find the excess of suffering to be overwhelming, and do not know where to start.

There are others who cannot risk being compassionate for a long period of time. They like to give to quick disasters like a hurricane, but get too fatigued to follow a longer disaster like the famine in Somalia. The compassion runs out.

I have compassion fatigue. I do not judge a father of eight. I understand and have seen that education is the best contraception. I understand that it takes a lifetime to address injustice, and we cannot give up. I get that I won the lottery. But my compassion fatigue lies in the tendency to I think that because my partner and I both work for justice organizations and give financially to others, that my work is done. And that is why I love Kristof. Just when I am shutting off my heart, he asks me to re-engage as a global citizen and dig in.