i found this letter i wrote in September 2000, labelled as "donor letter “compassion fatigue”'. reprinted here to remind myself that this was once my life. that season is over- another season is here, but the principles remain the same.
Friends, family, supporters;
I read this phrase, “compassion fatigue”, for the first time this morning. I have heard about “donor fatigue”…which conjures up a mental image of someone with an outstretched hand that is aching from holding out dollar bills…but I am thoughtful as I contemplate the meaning of this new expression.
Through my experiences working among urban poor for the past 14 years, many times my heart has ached and been broken by the sights I have seen and the stories I have heard. It has been overwhelming. At times I have had to literally bite my lips to keep from crying aloud. I have tensed my facial muscles into rigidity to stop the tears from flowing in public or inappropriate places. I have disciplined every inch of my being to function with speed and efficiency during a medical emergency when what I really wanted to do was collapse on the floor dand let the sobs rib me apart.
Compassion fatigue. I think of Jesus, the greatest example of compassion who ever lived, and my personal life guide. I wonder if he ever experience this weird concept. He was focused, we learn from Scripture; he was often angry; he chose certain people sometimes, and on occasion seemingly bypassed others. But did he get tired of giving? Did he get weary of people?
Mother Theresa, another of my heroes. Hers was a life of servanthood and unwilling publicity. Human, yes, but so very compassionate for those who were on the threshold of death, their bodies rotting and stinking, the air filled with decay and hopelessness. Did she suffer from compassion fatigue?
As Gentle Hands ventures into new areas this year, a school a women’s shelter, new clinics in Myanmar (Burma) and India, I am tempted to try to hold all this expansion back and think, “Oh my God, what if everyone is really suffering from compassion fatigue and won’t see the vision with us and support it?” This is the nightmare of new projects…a lack of funds.
And then a voice whispers to my heart, “God is probably not going to suffer from compassion fatigue.” He sees every weary mother who is malnourished, anemic, carrying a child within her who is struggling to form a healthy little body with inadequate nutrition. He sees the woman who has been beaten and thrown out of her house, little ones clinging to her. He sees the hundreds of bodies who were buried in burning garbage because of the folly of the wealthy who sent their trash to a landfill that became a 6-storey-high mountain of filth where children worked and lived and re-cooked thrown-out food to quiet the ache in their empty bellies. He sees the men sitting hopelessly day after day in the barrios, drinking and gambling and covering up their shame with “machismo”. He sees the children who can no longer attend school because they can’t afford the tricycle fare or the notebooks or a little lunch.
And he says to my heart, “Go for it!”
We are few, but we are mighty. He is on our side, and when we act on his behalf and do what he would do if he were here, he is obligated to provide. What pleases God is to look after those who suffer, those who do not have what they need of the basic necessities of life. I believe what hurts the heart of God is this obscene phrase, “compassion fatigue”.
There is a Bible verse that says, “Don’t be weary in doing good things, for if you persist and don’t give up, you will be rewarded”. (paraphrased) Another promise is, “Those who sow in tears will reap in joy”.
Are my tears falling? Is the heart’s blood of my compassion being shed to water the world I live in? Is my heart broken with the things that break the heart of God? Do I even know what breaks his heart?
I implore you, our friend, family, and supporters, do not succumb to compassion fatigue. Let yourself be stretched, enlarged, and wounded by the pain of the world. Feel the hurts. Hear the cries. Allow the heart of God to flow through you. Shed a tear or two. Give of your resources until your own personal life is invaded. Spend your time as if it were precious. Don’t waste a moment that could be spent in prayer, in comfort, in laughter, in weeping. Don’t let the hours of your life be ticked off meaninglessly.
We are all in this together. Fight the apathy! Fight the materialistic concept of “me first”. Fight against the unfairness of things, the tragedy of the “haves and the have-nots”. Rage against the attitude that says, “it’s their own fault”.
Walk with us where we are going now, I ask you in all humility. Support us as we venture into the “forgotten land” of Burma, where the people are so hungry for both food and God, but their temples shine like the sun with millions of dollars worth of gold. Support us as we train a young couple who is willing to lay down their lives in India by serving women and children and the poor. Support us as we start a school for kids who are drifting down the river of neglect into drugs and crime. Support us as we provide a safe haven for moms and kids who are abused and homeless.
“You’re asking a lot”, I hear you say.
Yes, I admit that I am. I am unashamedly asking you to stretch yourself. I am asking you to move out of your comfort zone, to realize that if you live by western standards, you are in the top 5% of the world’s wealth. I am asking you to try eating one meal of rice and fish a day and see how you feel. How long has it been since you experienced border-line starvation? When you turn on your taps, does water come out? Of course it does. But do you know that for millions of people, there is no water? They have to carry it pail by precious pail, and ration it out in tiny quantities.
You can’t imagine what it’s like until you’ve seen it, smelled it, and experienced it…to live in a garbage dump. To be covered in flies, in your eyes, in your mouth, all the time. To walk through filth ankle deep…all the time. To give birth on plastic or cardboard, on top of a mountain of garbage, to a baby who has a fever and who will probably develop an infection, with a 50% chance of dying before he’s a year old.
People of my heart, please don’t succumb to compassion fatigue. Be like the son of God, who gave the ultimate sacrifice- His own life, for those who didn’t even care. Don’t look for the rewards, the respect, the gratitude. You won’t get it. Just give because it’s the right thing to do. Give wisely, generously, and cheerfully.
Thank you! Humbly, but with great emotion,