I’m suffering from a bad case of compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue is an odd subject and not one we talk about often. I’d define it as a sort of numbness caused by direct or indirect experience of another’s suffering. The sufferer had a healthy level of compassion at one point, but because of continued output of that compassion, their sense of pity, sympathy and empathy eventually withered and disappeared.
The question is, can a person experiencing compassion fatigue embrace the holiday of Thanksgiving?
We think of Thanksgiving as a day of family, food, football and post-meal naps, but Thanksgiving is also a chance to reflect on life, one’s blessings and give thanks for all we have. Can one do that while dealing with a serious bout of compassion fatigue?
Because this current bout has crept up on me gradually, I’m not sure when it exactly started. I think perhaps it started in late August. That was when the first of three major hurricanes to strike the United States within weeks of each other struck the Texas Gulf Coast and inundated many towns and cities. I felt so sorry for Harvey’s victims. I tried to put myself in their shoes, wet as they all were, and imagine life in their water world.
Then, before those poor Texans could dry out, tragedy struck again with a second hurricane slamming into Florida. Luckily Irma wasn’t as wet and wild as forecasts predicted, but it did plenty of damage, both to human life and tree limbs.
And since bad things always come in threes, Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico a Third World country when it blew straight through the heart of the island territory in mid-September. And they’re still picking up the pieces.
The death and destruction, doom and gloom of late summer-early fall was just getting started, though. Nature had had its way, but the man-made destroyers came next.
On Oct. 1, as we will never forget, gunshots rained down from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas, killing 58 and wounding 546 country music festival goers. In early November, another crazed lunatic executed 26 men, women and children in a little church in a small town in Texas. About a week later, another man went haywire in Northern California, causing death and mayhem in seven separate incidents.
I’ve followed current events pretty closely for a quarter-century now and I really don’t remember such a rash of bad news striking America. And because we feel a common bond with our fellow Americans, I can’t help but think it must be affecting many of us as we approach Thanksgiving.
And it isn’t just storms and shootings causing us collective grief. The negativit-o-meter is reaching overload and doesn’t seem to be letting up. It spikes every time a new sexual harassment claim comes out of Hollywood and Washington, D.C. The meter spikes again when we hear of President Trump’s possible misconduct. It spikes when we see hopelessness in our own, like the seemingly growing number of homeless people at nearly every corner in Portland hoping someone hands them a dollar. It’d be fine if we didn’t care, but it’s enough to drive one crazy trying to come up with solutions to all these problems.
So how does one practice thankfulness when things seem so bad? How can we be thankful for our own good fortune when others are suffering? Put another way, how can we see through our own compassion fatigue that colors everything as hopeless?
This Thanksgiving is going to be a tough one when it comes to being thankful on a scale larger than my own life. Maybe this is how my parents felt in the late 1960s, when American society was in upheaval, too. I guess all we can do is thank God for the good things: The economy is thriving, our military is strong, our nation’s natural beauty from sea to shining sea is still beauteous, and the American family – the bedrock of our civilization – is still revered in many towns and cities of this great nation.
Perhaps also it’s important to realize that even in the midst of great trial, the human heart is capable of boundless empathy. Our compassion fatigue may indeed be real and can come on quickly, but it can also dissipate just as quickly. Perhaps Thanksgiving, which forces us to slow down and reflect on the blessings and good things in life, is designed to jolt us from our compassion fatigue. If that’s the case, we need Thanksgiving, or at least giving of thanks, more than once a year.
John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.