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Doing Something For the Soul: Compassion Fatigue

Lyndon Johnson was fond of telling a story about a job applicant for switchman on a railroad. Asked, “What would you do if you saw a train coming from the west at 60 miles an hour?” answered, “I would switch that train to the eastbound track.” “Well, what would you do if you saw a train coming from the east at 60 miles per hour?” He answered logically, “I would switch that train to the westbound track.”

The interviewer heightened the situation. “What would you do if you saw an eastbound train coming at 60 mph and a westbound train at 60 mph? Could you handle that pressure? What would you do?”

“I would run and get my brother.”

“What! Why would you do that?” the interviewer sputtered.

“Because my brother ain’t never seen a train wreck before!”

The field of compassionate caring is littered with “train wrecks.” Good people who have experienced, seen, heard “too much.” Some are quick to explain, “I love working with the clients but…it’s the paperwork, the office bureaucracy, the regulations, the turf battles that undermine my compassion.”

Many in death, dying and bereavement have heard, “Oh, I could never do what you do!” What gets subtly communicated is that I must have some “gift” or “specialness” that undergirds my work with the bereaving. Unfortunately, this notion can lead to an assumption, “Well, I am gifted!” which can cause me to ignore critical warning signals. Given how electronic automobile dashboards are these days, a particular warning can be threatening or challenge my priorities for the day. So, I may just ignore a warning signal to get on down the road.

Compassion wornness is epidemic throughout the community of care giving. One too many yeses leads to an ambush, “I cannot do this anymore.” Suddenly, working in some big box store seems appealing. Indeed, in some caring organizations, more and more work—particularly paperwork and documentation—is spiritually and emotionally draining and threatens our effectiveness and our personal relationships. The ubiquitous cell phone and other electronic “machines” which are, admittedly, so helpful can become intrusive and oppressive. Many working in the field of compassionate care have no “off” button. Thus, one can be on a well-deserved vacation or day off and never vacate the electronic office. Ever said, “Oh, I’m just going to check my email….” and look up an hour later?

What are some warning signals of intrusion?

Electronic density. E.M. Hallowell at Harvard warns, “Never before in history has the human brain been asked to track so many data points. Everywhere, people rely on their cell phones, email, and digital assistants in the race to gather and transmit data, plans, and ideas faster and faster.” The latest intrusion “trumps” the previous latest intrusion.

Rebooted personal woundedness. All of us have psychological material we have stuffed into “baggies” to deal with “later.” Thus, as we receive the narratives of the bereaving, some words and phrases sound so familiar to our realities that it takes great discipline to concentrate on listening.

David Crenshaw reports that repeated exposure to these narratives triggers our own pasts (and not-so-pasts), personal wounds and traumas, and reminds us of our own worst fears: “My God, this could happen to me!”

Defusing attention deficit trait. Hallowell insists that the average employee or professional today wrestles with three “hot buttons”: distractibility, inner frenzy, and impatience. That inner frenzy can be driven by the “Employee of the Year” app—the continuous reminders that we are being evaluated and, if a staff cutback should prove necessary, the amount of work we produce keeps us valued by management. Seldom do we have adequate time to complete one task, without a request of directive interfering. Or a colleague asking, “Do you have a minute?” (And that will mean thirty minutes minimum.) Not surprisingly, some come in early or stay late to “catch up” or “to get things done” only to wish that those items would stay “done”!

Hallowell convinces me that he has been investigating my work day. “When you are confronted with the sixth decision after the fifth interruption in the midst of a search for the ninth missing piece of information. . .and the twelfth impossible request has blipped unbidden across your computer screen, your brain begins to panic!” Humans juggle so many electronic interruptions that our souls are being depleted. Not surprisingly, a sense of chronic exhaustion is second nature in this field. Some “forget” things but laugh it off as a “senior moment.” Research, however, suggests that we experience numeric overload. We are keeping track of too many numerals. Think of all the phone numbers you keep on the edge of your brain, all the security codes you must punch in before an alarm sounds, and all those endless passwords. We offer compassion despite a nagging hum in our brains.

Diffusing noise and racket. Compassionate humans are bombarded with noise, racket and sound. Pause at an intersection and the airwaves we share with others is overwhelmed by the volume of another’s radio, particularly the “Boom-thumpa-boom!” variety. Never have I groaned, “That is the loudest Chopin I have ever heard!” More problematic is noise that is impossible to decipher. For too many, silence is an impossibility.

I may be “preaching to the choir.” You may counter, “I knew all this before I read this far” or “He sounds like he’s been snooping in my office. What can a caring human do about these intruders?

Deliberately and intentionally make silence. Between appointments or in traffic, what “sounds” are coming from your dashboard? Even if you are not consciously listening to talk show patter or the news of disasters here or somewhere, your brain soaks in the noise like a thirsty sponge! Suppose for an hour or a day you did not immediately reach for your radio dial. I once drove 600 miles back to Kansas City without turning on the radio. I arrived so much calmer than after previous trips. After I come home from leading grief groups, I “make” silence. Often the only noise is the ticking of a clock.

Fast from electronic intrusion. Fewer Americans can go to dinner—whether fast food or higher dollar meals—without electronic gadgets. As I ate dinner recently in a wonderful Thai restaurant, the three individuals at the next table were “working” their electronics. I overheard no conversation. (I also noticed they were shoveling in their meal, apparently to match their electronic surfing.)

While leaders in the field of spirituality insist that we need more time free of electronic intrusion, there always seems to be a new update on the electronic horizon that promises more speed and more accessibility.

Show up with 100 percent you! It is challenging to be present 100 percent to a client or a counselee or a committee. Confession: I am so schedule-focused, and spend so much time mentally checking off “to do’s” of the morning or afternoon, that I am not listening closely to the spaces between the griever’s words. Did I notice what had not been said because I am already thinking about my next appointment or place I need to be in an hour? One therapist friend described meeting Eleanor Roosevelt; her intention was to quickly shake Eleanor’s hand. Instead, Eleanor held on to her hand, despite the crowd, and asked, “And what are you planning to do with your life?” For two minutes, my friend recalled, “it was like I was the most important person in her world. She listened with her eyes. I have never forgotten that moment.”

Before rushing from our car, office, cubicle, or electronic device, take a moment to borrow one of Anne Lamott’s three essential prayers: “Help!” “Thanks” or “Wow.” Whatever your spirituality, these brief prayers communicate: “Help me to be fully present to this individual who has a claim on my time!” I have come to believe individuals have something to say that I need to hear either for my professional work or for my personhood.

Go ten! I attended an intriguing presentation by a geriatric psychiatrist who asked participants to think about our childhoods, particularly age ten. We were instructed to think about what we had enjoyed doing. What brought us delight? Then we were asked, “Is there any hint of that delight or activity in your life now?” As a compassion dispenser, what are you doing (at age 30, 40, 50, or 60) that you did when you were age ten? Why did you “delete” that activity? How might you resurrect that? Simply, at age ten, we spent a major portion of the day nourishing our minds, souls, and our bodies—and we miss that.

Jackie Kennedy, late in her career as a book editor, was asked why she invested so much time on book projects that would never become bestsellers. Jackie thoughtfully responded, “Every so often it is good to do something for the soul.”

What have you done for your soul lately?


Written by:
Harold Ivan Smith, DMin, FT


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