Resisting Compassion Burnout & Fatigue

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time


There is no shortage of people in dire situations. And when the dire situation is quantifiable, when there’s a reasonable possibility it can be addressed, then it becomes just a little less dire. The greater challenge is in the actual details, as in how some critical need and its amazing solution are brought together. The financial burden could be steep. A great many people may have to get their hands dirty. There could be many moving parts. And there could be repercussions, hypothetical, but unavoidable. And it all needs to get done yesterday. If we can just see past ourselves to attempt a solution, it’s one less thing to deal with. And yet this is precisely the dream job of some quick-thinking, highly organized, problem-solving, adrenaline junkie genius. And if someone wants to try, we should at least lend whatever support we can. We’ve established that neither you nor I will be leading that effort. But if someone can accomplish some good, why not? These are people who welcome a challenge and its complexities willingly. They possess extraordinary wisdom and finely tuned skills most mortal humans lack. Give them all the room they need, and the work gets done. Beautifully. Seamlessly. Efficiently. Okay, there could be a few less than desirable outcomes, but we know doing something is always better than doing nothing. And it’s not a principle that works in every scenario. But if you honestly discover you’re actually spending time and energy poking holes in other people’s confidence, just stop and take a seat in the bleachers. It looks like someone else will be kicking the ball for the field goal. And it’s not you.

For over a year now that dire situation has been the global pandemic. People are sick and suffering and dying from contracting the deadly virus. Some of us have been fortunate to have gone relatively unscathed for so long. But that number continues to dwindle. Would it help at all or does it make things worse to find out how they ended up in such a horrible state to begin with? Was it from total ignorance? Was it from carelessness by choice? Was it from an appalling lack of concern for their own safety and the safety of others? Did they take every precaution, any precaution at all, or did they flaunt their refusal to take even the simplest precautions? The subject still rouses strong feelings because it’s been politicized. But if we want to help, we know not to let any of that cloud our good intentions. Medical professionals and pastoral care ministers especially are trained to withhold judgment. But the questions bounce around in our heads if we feel anything at all for the welfare of others. And the choice to get involved in some form will tell us whether or not we’re doing as Jesus would do.

If you have a mailing address and have sent a donation to an organization that claims to help the poor at some point in your life, you are likely now getting a bazillion more solicitations for help with any number of crisis or emergencies halfway around the world or in your own backyard. It’s just a fact of life. Wherever people are, there will be people in need, people suffering or hungry or in such dire conditions we know something needs to be done. Some of us may be in a position to do something that will actually improve things. Some will just exploit the situation for personal gain. But there are many more ways to help our neighbor. Figuring out what we each should do will hinge on our willingness to embrace our accountability before God. If we say we are disciples of Jesus, our own actions will eventually prove or disprove that claim.

Early in his public ministry, Jesus incorporated healing the sick and restoring health and wholeness to the broken. He often spoke of God’s generous and abundant mercy and God’s desire to restore his wayward children to loving friendship with himself and all creation. His message was clearly broader than any one occasion of driving out an illness or demon from any one individual. But to that person who was suffering, it was all that mattered in that very moment.

It’s been over a year now since I was too sick to care about anyone else’s suffering in the world, but when we are overwhelmed to the point of breaking whether by physical illness or depression or hunger or desperation or grief over a devastating loss, we won’t be at all receptive to the wisdom of sacred scriptures or religious authors or eloquent preachers. We will be so much more intent on finding relief from whatever ails us. And only after that burden is lifted will we be willing to engage with the world.

The next time you stub your toe or bite your tongue or suffer from a toothache, see how quickly and efficiently you resolve the problems of suffering people around you without losing your cool. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad Christian. It just means you don’t enjoy pain and suffering.

So we can relate to Job’s misery. We can understand how people overwhelmed with the burdens of physical illness or hunger or poverty or sadness, people caught under the heavy weight of injustice and oppression, people cut down by devastating hardship and hopelessness will be cynical and dark and self-destructive. And if they have lost the will to fight completely they will likely be discouraged and inconsolable and uncooperative. How do you raise them up, especially if your situation isn’t any better, especially if you’re in the same boat?

St. Paul speaks about the power of the Gospel to transform not only those who hear it but especially those who have to preach it. I know from personal experience that because I have to listen to and reflect on and digest the lessons of scripture each week for my own personal growth and spiritual nourishment and Christian discipleship before I can even tell anyone anything, I find that I must first confront my own pride and disobedience and fear and prejudice and cynicism and complacency and lack of faith. I know how hypocritical it is to be disobedient while I tell you to be obedient, to be fearful while I tell you not to be afraid, to cling to my prejudices and contempt for those I dislike while I tell you to shed your prejudices and contempt, to be satisfied with only a half-hearted and unconvincing commitment while I tell you to throw caution to the wind and follow in the footsteps of Jesus and quit looking back. I know I will have to give an account to God for my words and actions and choices. I like to say I am doing my utmost. But I also believe that God is generous and abundantly merciful.

So we are back where we started with today’s reflection. In the face of life’s many twists and turns, we will inevitably experience physical illness or sadness or hunger or poverty or grief, or people will whom we know and love, or they will be strangers to us. Like Jesus we can choose to walk alongside them and alleviate as we are willing and able whatever burden they carry. There will always be pain and suffering. God relates to ours. We can relate to our neighbor’s. And we can do for them as Jesus does for us.

Rolo B Castillo © 2021