I think there is a name for it… Compassion fatigue. The term used to describe the way appeals to help others in times of suffering and tragedy gradually lose their power to move us. In this day of 24 hour news cycles and second by second updates from media sources, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the scope of suffering in the world. In the face of this overload, we turn away. Because we can.
A few years ago, I was driving through a nearby city and saw a homeless man walking down the street. I have seen homeless people on a thousand occasions, but that day, I was just a block away from the center where my friend works everyday to touch lives shattered by addiction and mental health issues. It occurred to me, she probably knows his name. Suddenly, I realized that I had never considered that homeless people had names. Of course they do. I just had never thought beyond their “position” in life to consider their life in that position. My friendship opened a new world to me. As we talked about the people she served day by day, I began to pray for them -by name. This friendship caused me to think about individuals on cold winter mornings and to worry about their safety. They had crossed into the realm of people in my heart.
I am ashamed to say, I was 45 years old before I ever thought of a homeless person… as a person.
A decade ago, I watched in horror as Hurricane Katrina destroyed a great southern city. In the days following the storm I watched endless hours of television news and cried as mothers carried their sick children through the streets, as a family left their dead grandmother outside the hospital, and as a city and a nation grappled with devastation on a grand scale. Somehow, this story broke through the gulf of indifference, busyness, and distance and touched me. I felt that tragedy.
But, if I am honest, there are few headlines that actually touch my heart. In my everyday life, I am numb to the suffering of “others” beyond the borders of my little life. I am cynical about how much good can be accomplished half a world away and I focus my attention closer to home. I don’t necessarily think this is bad strategy… and I don’t think I am alone. The wider world feels very far away and my life seems pretty insignificant.
But last night, I read a post that broke my heart.
Ann Voskamp made this real to me. These are women, like me. Women with husbands and sons who have been killed and daughters who are being used and discarded as though they aren’t even people. The violence and terror they are facing, the trauma they’ve endured are unthinkable. I turn off the television when violence comes on. And I turn away from this kind of suffering because I don’t know what to do.
But Ann’s challenge is real, and powerful. We aren’t being kind to care, a little… about women and children, orphans and widows. WE are charged to help them. Yes, we must pray for them. Yes, we must! We MUST! But if we pray for their need and do nothing to help…
What good is it, dear brothers and sisters,
if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions?
Can that kind of faith save anyone?
Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing,
and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”
—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing.
What good does that do?
So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough.
Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.
So, I don’t know how to help. I don’t know what will make a difference for Sozan, Marwa, and Leyla. I don’t know how my tears and my heartbreak can help them. I know that my tears won’t bring back husbands or sons, that my heartbreak can’t restore what has been lost. So, I gave some money…
I am also worried about my heart. I worry that my heart is calloused by the suffering delivered multiple times per day through my devices. I remember hearing about Sinjar Mountain in the news, but while they were running for their lives and making choices no mother should ever have to make, it was just another headline to me. It never occurred to me that behind that headline there were thousands of tragedies happening and continuing to happen. I just didn’t think about it. I want to have a heart that breaks over the things that break My Father’s heart.
I don’t want to become paralyzed by global suffering. I want to become mobilized by it. I want to learn more and do more. I don’t really know what any of that means, but it starts with aligning my heart with the One who came for the broken and the lost. The One, who put aside his divine privileges and came to serve those who were lost. So, I give Him my broken heart and ask Him to show me. And a I do what I can with what I have… I begin to write.
What will you do?