The Self-ish Question around Compassion Fatigue

I’ve been wrestling a question for a while now. In a lot of ways, it has become the question.

The question is also the reason for a bit of radio silence around here lately.

In July, I began my journey towards getting a doctoral degree. It started with ten days of intensive classes and has continued with reading, writing, and unpacking the questions I want to wrestle with in the coming few years—and what I want to explore in this educational journey is a question for all who are trying to vocationally create a more just, compassionate, and sustainable world; it is the question that I have come to wrestle with in the last year:

Can I have the kind of life I am working to see that others get to have?

Or, the question behind the question: Can I really offer others “the good life” if I am operating from a place of over-expenditure? Implicit in this second question is a resounding “NO.” Perhaps I can do some good for some people for some amount of time, but eventually I will implode or explode and I’ll end up doing more harm than good.

And so, the question behind the question behind the question: What kind of practices do I need to develop for myself to be rooted in a life of wholeness, from which I can offer assistance to others who are growing in wholeness for themselves?

This is the only way I can see to be able to make a sustained and substantial difference in the world, and it is a way in which I am not well versed.


Given the religious context that I grew up in, there’s an internal script that plays in my head, emotions, and body, that tells me to try to rescue everybody else and think of myself as merely instrumental in that crusade. It’s the equivalent of running around the depressurized airplane assisting others with their oxygen masks until, blue in the face, you collapse.

For me, there was a shitstorm of popular theological concepts gone awry, meets family dynamics that set me up to have a tiny something of a savior complex.

First, you have a lousy notion about kenosis—the idea of self-emptying—that comes from a scripture that is actually about how Jesus isn’t just human but also divine, talking about how God moves towards humanity. In some places, this idea gets twisted up (in most worship music, for instance) and the messaging becomes that God wants humans to empty ourselves of self for the sake of carrying out God’s work in the world. It’s kind of like we forget that Jesus already did the whole Jesus thing, so we don’t have to do that.

Then, when you lay the whole rid-yourself-of-a-self fiasco on top of a version of Christianity that believes God’s not capable of loving us enough to really forgive us, so he has to let his son/self be murdered to satisfy something (honoring God’s sense of justice, paying off the devil, protecting God’s incredibly fragile purity. . .—take your pick), and even then, God still doesn’t really forgive us, and needs to burn most of us in hell or annihilate us—well, it’s easy to see how growing up in that environment, it might be easy to get the impression that your only purpose in the world is to selflessly rescue others from the hell, to which your capriciously angry God who loves them so much, just has to send them.

[Yes, I know that sentence was impossible to read, but it’s okay to skip it and move along. You got the general idea.]

And so—if you can’t tell from my snark—while I no longer believe this mishmash of doctrines makes any sense, and I have other ways of interpreting and thinking about these concepts, the years of feelings, anxiety, and practiced, moralistic self-abasement live in me.



When I open up Facebook or the news and see horrors, social injustices, and pain, from Ferguson to Fallujah, I sorrow. I see heartache and pain and harm and I want to do something to bring healing into the world. I see my privilege and how insulated I am from so much suffering, and I feel the weight of guilt. This injustice has to stop–so, obviously, it must be my responsibility to stop it all.

And in my day to day life, at work, with random acquaintances, I feel moved to help others. I feel compassion. I want to be responsible and steward my own life well for the sake of the community of which I am a part. I hear other people’s problems and stories, and I swallow down my own feelings to listen to them–because that’s what I’m supposed to do, right?

[If you happen to be privy to hearing me process aloud things from my internal world, you should take that as a sign that you are one of a few who are deeply loved and who get to experience the baby-steps of my practicing different ways of being that honor my self. I’m grateful, and I probably owe you dinner.]

But if I just keep trying to give without having a deep rooted source from which to draw, I will run dry. And being resourceful, I can make shit up. I can intuit and instinctually get pretty far—whether it’s working to address serious social problems or showing up relationally with people around me. But at some point along the way, I find myself burning out, getting beyond my normal level of introvert-needing-to-recharge tired, and getting to the point where I feel overwhelmed by all of the sorrow of which I am a witness in the world.

It’s in these moments of compassion fatigue where I begin to have great understanding for the many ways I choose to dissociate, self-soothe, and escape.

Some of this is an ethical problem that is a direct result of technological access to information. I am regularly exposed to acute horrors and insidious, systemic injustices that extend far beyond my own community. More, my community is stretched beyond a number of people that I can truly care for, and yet, I do care about each and every person I come in contact with. Without an off-switch or a Sabbath, it is nearly impossible to say no to the persistent litany of trauma that demands to be grieved–and if not grieved, lodged in our bodies and souls until it overtakes us.

A crucial part of having a self is having a “no.” When children learn that they are separate persons from their primary caregiving parent, it is usually connected with the idea of “no.” No is a way of resisting and declaring the boundaries of my self in the world. When I am flooded with messages that having a no is not okay, I eventually shut myself down or I rebel against those messages.

In my case, I also grew up with the sense that my sexuality, my orientation, and my core desire for connection with other people was deeply flawed. The religious context I grew up in told me that my developing self was certainly not okay—not okay for God, not okay for society, and not okay to bring into relationship with my family or friends. And, believing my self was deeply unsafe, it seemed reasonable to believe I should lose my self and beg God to take over my life to be a hollow instrument for bringing about something good in the world.

But the big flaw with this notion is that suggests God doesn’t really loves anybody for who God created us to be. This God just cares about us as pawns in a cosmic pyramid scheme where as a prospective target we are deeply desirable, but the second we are on the hook, we are meaningless, except as a means to the end of the next person to be recruited.

This, as opposed the God of the Bible who moves towards all creation with delight, calling us all good. And in Jesus, God continues moving towards us for relationship, to stop us from harming one another, and to offer us blessing so that we can flourish and have full and complete lives.

And here I am now. Staring down my 30th birthday in a couple of months and realizing that there are places in my body, in my mind, and in my emotional landscape, where I am still trying to save the world from an angry God who doesn’t care about me, and doesn’t particularly like some really important aspects of my humanity. To the extent that I live by those scripts, I am trying to please that God (and really, lets be honest, my parents and childhood pastors) who can never be pleased, by annihilating myself for the sake of rescuing others. And those scripts also keep me from the kind of compassion that might be useful in bearing wit(h)ness to the actual lives of other people.

When I don’t get to have a self; don’t get a “no;” don’t get a way to step back from legitimate compassion fatigue, because I am fused to pleasing a capricious God and rescuing others, then I will inevitably miss seeing the personhood of those I am trying to help. Because I think of myself as an agent of God, part of God’s Missio Dei, then I set myself up as the one best able to help another with whatever is happening in their life. I refuse others the dignity of their own agency and humanity—I deface them, and in so doing, I also deny the God who gives us all selfhood. In doing this, I set my own, hollow, self-annihilating self in the driver’s seat, like a tantrum throwing two-year-old who MUST keep wailing because they don’t know if their unpredictable mother will come back into the room.

When I don’t have a self, I collapse others and God into my vacuum and try to control everything else, because I have no central self to know or love.

And this is why I breathe.

This is why I pay attention to my breath.

This is why, when I am putting a restless six year old down for bed, I lay down on the floor next to his bed and breathe deeply.

I can only offer a stable presence in the world if I receive the gifts of my breath and my body and the life I have been given. I can only help my small friend find his own center in his own body, by first locating myself and practicing what I hope to offer him.

This is my question. The question at the heart of my questions: How do I practice having a self and enjoying the one life I have been given?

Because, in the end, we are not so different from trees. I can chop an apple tree down to make a table from which to serve people food, or I can tend the tree—prune it, protect it, feed it—and it can produce fruit for years to come; fruit to feed people and seeds enough to grow a forest.


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