Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Compassion Fatigue: Disconnectedness and Numb

Written by: on January 23, 2014

Most mission agencies, NGO’s, churches and philanthropic institutions whether representing missions, or serving orphans, providing aid for disaster relief or development programs have experienced a decline in donations. On the surface the obvious reason stated is the Global Financial Crisis. But I sense a deeper crisis, one that is sad and nonchalantly stated as ‘compassion fatigue’. And sadly, the church at large too seems comfortable enough to use this term to excuse itself from its mission.

What could be the reason for such a fatigue? Reading and reflecting on Active Hope: How to face the mess we are in without going crazy by Macy and Johnstone this week offered some answers. I was particularly drawn to their reference to ‘pain’ in their four step “empowerment process” called “the Work That Reconnects”. They suggest that “pain for the world, a phrase that covers a range of feelings, including outrage, alarm, grief, guilt, dread, and despair” is a “central principle” of the “Work that Reconnects” (p. 66)

It seemed logical that if one would feel such ‘pain for the world’ it would evoke compassion. According to Macy and Johnstone, compassion, in any spiritual tradition, “literally means “to suffer with”, is a prized as an essential and noble capacity” (p. 67) Have we lost that capacity to be compassionate? Or another honest hard question to ask ourselves is: Are with drunk with pleasure that we are numb to pain itself…much less feel any pain for the world?

While I might sound cynical, the plain truth is that, in this time and age we have devised more ways than ever to anesthetize our senses against pain. Without pain, our “key survival mechanism in our response to danger” (p. 58), we live disconnected from reality and many of us carry on with ‘Business as Usual’ ignoring the hard facts around us unaware of impending danger. Dr. Paul Brand, a missionary doctor, who served in India among people affected with leprosy uncovers the pathology of pain and the gift that is to the human body.

“Pain is not something that most of us would count as a blessing. However, Dr. Paul Brand’s work with leprosy patients in India and the United States convinced him that pain truly is one of God’s great gifts to us. In this account of his fifty-year career as a healer, Dr. Brand probes the mystery of pain and reveals its importance. As an indicator that lets us know something is wrong, pain has a value that becomes clearest in its absence. Indeed, pain is a gift that none of us want and yet none of us can do without”, writes Phillip Yancey, a friend and co-author of Dr. Brand’s book Pain: The Gift that Nobody Wants.

I have personally witnessed the debilitating effects of a lack of pain on patients affected with leprosy. I have seen their oozing sores and rotting flesh after a minor injury to which they remain oblivious until the damage done literally costs their very lives.

Macy and Johnstone contend that our numbness to feel pain for the world arises from a stunted or a lack of understanding of the concept of interconnectedness. This concept of interconnectedness is discussed in Indian sociology as ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (Sanskrit: from “vasudha”, the earth; “iva” = is as a; and “kutumbakam”, family;) is a Sanskrit phrase, which means ‘all cosmos is one family’.

It not only means that there is interconnectedness between humans of different race but brings humans, the earth and other living creatures into a relationship with one another and the Creator. The Bible, too clearly establishes this ‘brotherhood/sisterhood’ of all creation. The Psalmist writes “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Ps. 24:1 NIV). By virtue of God being the Creator, Head and the Father of all creation, all created life, then, exist in relation to each other. Such relationships nurture a sense of ‘belongingness’ and instill within individuals a deeper identity. In simple words, the whole is the sum total of the parts…differentiated and integrated at the same time (p. 93)

Therefore “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (I Cor. 12:26 NIV). Such belongingness would, on the one hand, inflict pain for our world in case of violations, alerting us to possible damage and on the other, evoke compassion to respond seeking appropriate solutions by virtue of reflex and not ‘philanthropy’. Living now in a state of “hyperindividualism” (p. 91), it is not difficult then to understand why we suffer from compassion fatigue. We are disconnected, numb and schizophrenic. Therefore our responses to the ‘outside other’ stem mostly from compulsion leading to ‘compassion fatigue’ rather than from a sense of responsibility to and love for our ‘connected self’ (p. 31)

Given this compassion fatigue that seems to have overtaken the church too, we as believers need to consider our motives and impetus for our acts of compassion. We need to seriously ask ourselves if we are disconnected from the sufferings of this world and the sufferings of Christ that we no longer are willing to acquaint ourselves with grief and overwhelming compassion? We should take our cue from Jesus Himself, who when He encountered human pain and suffering was “moved with compassion” (Matt. 9:36 KJV) that led Him to respond with miracles.

Macy, Joanna, and Chris Johnstone. Active hope: how to face the mess we’re in without going crazy. Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2012.

“The Gift of Pain.” Phillip Yancey. com: The Official Site. http://www.philipyancey.com/the-gift-of-pain (accessed January 23, 2014).

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Becky Stanley

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