Thursday, November 02, 2006

Compassion Fatigue

I recently had an e-mail exchange with a woman in my congregation. She was basically coming unglued over an incident that took place at the home of another church member. Member #2 was hosting a meeting in her home for a community organization working on local environmental stuff. The meeting was just a few days before Halloween, and at the close of the meeting, Memeber #2 passed out chocolates in pumpkin goodie bags to the meeting attenders.

"How could she do that? Doesn't she know that 70% of chocolate worldwide is harvested by child slaves in the Ivory Coast? How can she host a meeting for local environmental advocacy and then pass out "treats" produced by slave labor. When I asked her about this, she just laughed at me. I used to respect her so much, but now I just think HYPOCRITE whenever I see her . . ."

Member #1 then pointed out, correctly more or less, some other stuff our church does that is not perfectly consistent with our stated mission of sharing the compassion of Christ with our community and our world.

My response to her is that folks tend to fall into roughly two categories: those that don't want to know the ways their lifestyle makes them complicit in the oppression of others and those who do want to know, but often get overwhelmed by the enorminty and complexity of the problem. Folks in category #1 do not respond well to an all out frontal assalt. It makes them retreat even more deeply into their caves. Folks in category #2 (and I counted myself in this category), are funny. We can be eager learners, making changes in how we live in small and large ways. But then we can reach a limit on how much more we can handle. Also, it's easy to just want to give up when it becomes clear that there is no "easy fix" for so many of the problems. And we can act out our compassion fatigue in wierd ways. Like laughing at the person who brings you the latest bit of bad news. I said that, knowing the woman in question, the seemingly callous response probably could better be translated,

"Look, I already bike to work, boycott Walmart and eat only dolphin-safe tuna. I was really excited about alternative fuels until I read an article that said ethenol and biodiesel production will quickly propell Archer-Daniels-Midland forward in its bid to take over the universe. Don't push me on this chocolate thing, because I'm just about the throw in the towel and quit trying."

I think this "compassion fatigue" is a big factor in our ministries. When we try, as church leaders, to encourage our folks to live in ways that are consistent with the gospel as we understand it, we have to take into account that people are all over the place in terms of their capacity to receive information and absorb that information in ways that will inspire them to make changes. We also have to take into account family dynamics and economics. I remember hearing some moms in my kids' preschool a few years ago talking about how they had switched to hormone-free milk and free range eggs, etc. etc. that they were buying from a local independent farmer. At the time, our family was not doing well financialy at all and I was just happy to be able to buy milk and eggs when they were loss leaders at the local grocery, and was very ready not to ask questions about where those eggs came from. The "free range mamas" struck me as elitist snobs at the time.

HOw do you deal with this where you are?


zorra said...

As a hypocrite.

Yes, I stay away from Walmart. Yes, I blather on about local food and my co-op and humane farming practices. But when the rubber hits the road, I buy the factory chickens on sale for 59 cents a pound. I haven't been able to make myself pay $11.00 for an all-natural, guaranteed-free-range-and-humanely-slaughtered chicken. We discuss that maybe we should make a choice to reallocate money, to put more in the grocery budget and less somewhere else so we could afford this, but we haven't actually gone there yet.

As far as the chocolate and the Ivory Coast and the hundreds of similar issues with which we are bombarded every day, we just have to do the best we know how to do. Certainly it is overwhelming. My husband is committed to not buying products made in China. We have found that,depending on the category of stuff, sometimes it's almost impossible to find things that were made anywhere else, or at least someplace where you can be pretty sure that the workers received a fair wage.

This is not something that you can do perfectly. You pick some things that you do have some control over, however small, and try to go on from there.

Beth said...

How do I deal with this? I do the best I can. If I can't afford a particular change, or don't have capacity for one more, I try to let it go. I remember that I live in fallen world. I sin boldly because I can't do anything else. sometimes I even give myself permission to not worry about it.

Anitra said...

My guiding image on all this is this: Saving the world is like working on some huge quilt at a quilting bee. It doesn't really matter where you sit down and start working, just sit and work. And when your back and your hand and your eyes get tired, stand up and take a break. Come back when you are ready. Something is better than nothing.

Besides - The whole thing belongs to God, not us. I think that when we try to live by our own works we burn out and we fail and we forget to involve God and its been clearly document where THAT leads us.

We live in a broken world and we live in a system where we can not, no matter how hard we try, escape practices that depend on exploiting others. Unless we're willing to hand make everything we wear, sit on, eat, drive - we're participating in broken sinful systems. We're not to going to fix it all this week. So...

Live with joy. forgive yourself, forgive others, do what you can in targeted ways and let the message spread gently. It is important that we try, it is important what we do, but we can't do everything so live as gently as you can.

if you can shop at Whole Paycheck, then that's one of your contributions to the cause - opening up a market that will help increase demand and decrease prices. If you need food at the cheapest price, then by all means feed yourself and your family and celebrate that you are able to eat - no small thing in this world.


Russell Smith said...

Now this is a great thoughtful post. Thanks for your honesty on this. I believe that ultimately this is where we have to rest on God's sovereignty -- compassion fatigue simply pushes us into a place that we realize we need supernatural power to go on and to continue to make a difference. Thanks for this one.

Teri said...

I too have thought those people were snobs. And I too have caught myself being like that now and then...but at the same time I recognize that (at least in this country) it's a luxury to have the means to buy organic food and hemp clothes made my women in literacy programs and dishes and coffee and snacks and hair products made by small independent farmers/businesses who actually get paid for their work.

But now that I do have the means, I do buy organic when it's available. I do get my eggs from a woman in our church who has an organic farm. I don't shop at Wal-Mart. But you know what? I still can only wear Gap Jeans. I still don't drive 10 miles to go to the all-organice produce store when I can just go to the big chain 1 mile away from my house. I still eat chocolate and go to Starbucks. So...choose your battles or go naked and hungry.

hypocrite? yes. recipient of mounds of grace? also yes, ilhamdulillah.

ppolarbear said...

Oh my gosh...I so hear you. I am so overwhelmed with how many other things I should or could do that I just want to give up altogether when it feels like something I'm never going to get ahead on.

Listing Straight said...

When I think about how wasteful my extended family is (no recycling, SUVs), I think what someone in another country must think of my life (two cars, groceries on the shelf, trash pickup...).

It's all where you stand...

I agree.. very thoughtful and though-provoking post.
Thank you-

Presbyterian Gal said...

So ouch. I join boldly with hypocrites. Yet also blathering on about how, as a species, we are killing the planet this way and that way.

It is overwhelming. We used to be able to successfully protest as a society, but those days are gone. There are too many issues about things that do get to be very personally hard to deal with.

Yet I still try in the ways I'm willing. It makes me wonder if I've developed the same "fatigue" in my faith should the rubber ever need to hit the road.

more cows than people said...

great post, and it adds context to your comment on my blog which i really appreciate. I HIGHLY relate to your category 2 person. the vast majority of folks in my congregation and community are category #1 and thus we do things gently and slowly.

didn't know about the source of most of the world's chocolate! better restock the fair trade candy bars on our coffee table.

how did parishioner one respond when you offered your alternative interpretation of number two's laughter? sounds like you're doing very good pastoral work. is number one suffering a bit from compassion fatigue that's leading to some judgment?


cheesehead said...

When it became painfully obvious that a giant Wally World was going to be built within a half-mile of our house, we wrestled with the issues out loud at the dinner table on many a night.

Choice 1: go to the despised store occasionally when we had a purchasing need that could be easily and quickly obtained there, thereby expanding their Evil Empire,


Choice 2 : drive the extra 12 miles to Target, thereby putting carbon emmissions into the atmosphere, resulting in a melting of the polar ice caps and the senseless killing all the adorable baby seals.

Sometimes Evil Empire wins. Sometimes we kill a seal.

What's that you say? Why don't we just do without those non-essentials? Are you kidding me? What are we, Amish?

Never mind...

juniper68 said...

Oh this is all so good! The post is excellent and just gets right to the heart of the dilemma that keeps us in our family up nights, too.

I sometimes (well, always, to be truthful) express judgement about the excessive lifestyles of the people around me, but am aware that I am living just like them and I wonder: Does my self-criticism combined with my continued indulgence actually make me a better person than those who merely indulge without being critical? I'm not so sure.

Based on this post, going off to rip up my sermon and start over now. sighhhh.

Sue Densmore said...

Good post.

And, cheesehead, I roared at your comment!!

St. Inuksuk said...

I sin boldly even as a Presbyterian, but I do so held in God's grace. We are not called to be perfect, but to be and live faithfully in a skewed and flawed and sinful world and I am in the midst of it, skewed, flawed and sinful too. Thank God, God's in charge and full of grace. I do as I am able to walk the earth softly.
As long as I have breath, I will not give up chocolate (Swiss to the core on that!), but I may choose my chocolate more carefully.
And you know, the Amish are at Wal-Mart all the time! (I confess, I've seen them there!! brought in vans by those who have a Ride Service to the Amish. Which also makes me guilty of shopping at the Walmart from time to time.)Sigh.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what I can add that hasn't already been said and said well. I'm in the struggle too. Thanks for your thoughtfulness.

All I know to do is to try and find the creative tension between compassion and exhaustion.


aBhantiarna Solas said...

Gosh ... as a quilter, I love the quilt bee image. I can't tell you how many quilts I have been a part of. It's so much easier and more fun when you do them as a group.

I've long been a proponent of the idea that if everyone picked something and did just a little bit we'd all be so much better off. Then we would all be able to do a little bit more and then a little bit more. But if we all think we have to do all or nothing, nothing is often what we choose, because all is impossible. Take one step ... any step. Then take another. Just as we're all not hands or feet or eyes in the body of Christ, we all are also not going to do the same thing or find the same causes important. But if we all do one thing and then another, eventually it will make a difference. Like the drips of water that created the Grand Canyon ...

What a great post and awesome conversation!! Love it ...

LutheranChik said...

Speaking as another hypocrite with a food coop soul and a Meijer's wallet...sometimes you just have to pick your battles. I have a couple of justice/sustainable economy charities I try to support, out of all the groups that ask for help, and I've also adjusted some of my spending and consuming habits to reflect my values. Some days that all flies out the window, frankly. But I try; I try.