Physical illness, depression, and normal aging can all sap one’s energy, but those sources aren’t the ones on my mind today. I’m thinking about what has come to be called “compassion fatigue” and the more recent tag, “outrage fatigue,” a phrase I only ran across last Friday for the first time but instantly recognized as a diagnosis I could claim. “Compassion fatigue,” I noted on Facebook. “Yep. That about sums it up.”
A friend quickly cautioned that they are counting on our fatigue. (Aren’t these sides fatiguing in themselves? Sadly, they are very real, and that’s discouraging, too.) So, the outragers and their staunch supporters are confident that the rest of us will eventually turn our backs on the struggle for justice: that is my friend’s very important reminder to me.
When I diagnose myself as fatigued by outrage, however, I don’t prescribe for myself or anyone else a permanent flight from reality. Just a break! An evening away from the news, at the very least, because let’s face it – every day there is news to outrage the ideals of civility, decency, and fairness, to use a few simple, old-fashioned terms.
After I’ve had a little break, however, I go back to dig deeper into the idea of compassion and outrage fatigue, and, underneath both, what I find is a despair bred of feelings of helplessness.
If we are called upon, day after day, to feel compassion but feel we can do nothing to ease suffering, we feel helpless, and helplessness is only one step away from despair. If we are outraged, over and over, but feel powerless, we are vulnerable to despair, too. And the horrid thing about despair is that it paralyzes – and when we allow paralysis to get a grip on us, we truly are helpless.
Here’s something else I think I see: a connection between outrage and compassion. If we ourselves are not being personally victimized, why should we feel outrage except for the fact that we also feel compassion for those who are?
So what can we do with our compassion and our outrage?
I took Sunday off from the cares and problems of “the world” and spent hours cleaning floors, catching up on laundry, making soup, filing, recycling, and giving the dog a bath. It felt good to address tasks I could accomplish in a single day, with nothing but determination and raw physical energy. An added benefit (in addition to a clean dog and clean house and clothes) is that taking action to address these ordinary little home jobs also energizes me for larger, more difficult tasks, the kind that can’t be accomplished in a day but require dedication over the long haul. Little successes remind me that I am not powerless.
Neither, of course, am I Superwoman. No one is (and no one is Superman, either). Bigger tasks cannot be resolved in a single day. Family, friendship, community, country – whenever human beings are involved, there’s no shortcut to a long relationship, and I fully expect to leave this world with the struggle for justice still going on. Well, so what? Is that an excuse for shrugging off my own responsibility? I don’t think so.
Other people with good, positive, constructive, feasible ideas are pioneers who break trails for the rest of us. Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip Heath & Dan Heath, and The Revolution Where You Live: Stories From a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America, by Sarah van Gelder will be books that help me move forward.
One day at a time? It’s the only option on life’s table.