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"There's Too Much to Care About!" - Compassion Fatigue and Media

Updated: Mar 4, 2020

"I'm Just So Tired of Reading About More Bad News"

Since it's hard to miss cable news looping footage of mass shooting after mass shooting; photographs of a polar bear mother and a cub stranded on a small ice floe off the coast of Norway, news footage of children begging for their parents removed by an ICE raid; journalist coverage of mass graves in Syria; and the constant biting, vindictive language coming from US political leaders, I want to ask you the question more people should be asking: Are you okay, friend? I know I’m not.

All these issues are so complex that I won’t attempt to tackle them on a political level. But I do want to talk about compassion fatigue. This is the feeling you get when you pull up social media or news sources and you feel the sheer exhaustion from another hard hit from a person or article about yet another tragedy or cause. Is it the deforestation in the Amazon? Or another person who can’t get their medical bills paid? Do I have to read about another community devasted by a lack of clean water? Or even try to understand the complexities of foreign affairs when I can barely get through my day and get through work and feeding myself?

My general feeling is that the term “compassion fatigue,” has infiltrated more and more of everyday life if you are given access to social media or cable news networks. News media is driven by the brutal “if it bleeds, it leads” mantra, meaning friendly dog and fawn interactions are not going to be at the top of the hour, and social media tends to go viral for similar reasons (though not always). I have some hope that my plan for the HNN "Happy News Network" will prevail and I'll have a cable channel devoted only to puppies playing, cockatoos running around shouting madness, and mad, lovingly insane puppet shoes. Unfortunately I haven't been greenlit for the network premiere yet.

At any rate, “compassion fatigue” was first used in the 1950s to describe nurses who were at a burnout stage after spending too much emotional time and energy with patients, but I think in the present moment it’s become harder and harder to care. Every day we’re bombarded with suffering, and a plea to do something, anything!!Save the dogs and cats in shelters! How about donating to the homeless on the street? You can make a difference by volunteering to plant trees! Call your representative about reproductive rights! Make time to protest for your beliefs! Why aren't you saving gas with a fuel efficient car? Do you recycle?

But where, in these desperate entreaties, do your own needs come in?

Tend Your Garden, Don't Save the World


Here’s the part where I’m going to sound harsh. Suffering in this world has neither a beginning nor an end. Many animal species will go extinct, regardless of how hard anyone tries. While you were shopping for groceries, someone was suffering from unjust imprisonment. While you were eating your dinner, someone sitting in a hospital waiting room had terrible news. If you lived a thousand years with infinite money and resources, you could never relieve the cosmic levels of pain that exist here on earth.

Stay with me, though: that’s not where it stops. This is the difference between tending your garden and saving the world. We all have unique gifts to give to the world. Compassion fatigue tells you that you can’t do anything, because the big picture is too big and it's hopeless. But you can. You tend your own garden: first and foremost your own inner life, then the life and gifts that were given to you, and the people around you whom you love. Every great change in the outer world starts with a good garden, and it is an amazing contribution to take care of yourself. We’re not all caped crusaders for global justice straight away. Do good in your life, then that of your loved ones, then your neighborhood, then so on and so forth. The ripples go outward. But they start with what you can do this moment, this day, with what energy you have.

What gets the guilt spiral going is the notion that different acts have different valuations. There isn’t a point system I’ve ever worked out where you get more points for planting 300 trees or donating money to a worthy cause or rather than taking an extra 30 minutes to ground yourself or taking time with a loved one or just generally taking care that the garden of your own life is flourishing and has water and isn’t overgrown with weeds. Maybe that seems selfish. It’s not.

You can look up compassion fatigue and find all kinds of suggestions as to how to recover from it: they’re mostly the traditional self-help checklists of rest, exercise, abstinence from social media, and talk therapy. I wouldn’t dismiss any of these suggestions, but I do think that if you feel like “ten miles of hard road,” as my grandmother would say, and worn out from the feeling that the world is spinning off its axis and you want to contribute because you don’t want to be a bystander, then let me first give you a quote and a few links as a reframing device.

Nothing New Under the Sun


1. First, something written by Annie Dillard which is part of a longer passage in From the Time Being:

"We have no chance of being here when the sun burns out. There must be something heroic about our time, something that lifts it above all those other times. Plague? Funny weather? Dire things are happening. In fact we are witnessing a mass extinction of animals…But there have been five other such mass extinctions, scores of millions of years apart. People have made great strides toward obliterating other people, too, but that has been the human effort all along…Why are we watching the news? Only to reinforce our fancy – probably a necessary lie – that these are crucial times, and we are in on them. New diseases, shifts in power, floods! Can the news from dynastic Egypt have been any different?"

2. Second, here’s a link to a very long history of adults blaming the younger generation:

3. Finally, a history of media technology scares since roughly 1565:

Is it true that these times are so very different? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that it feels that way. Today and this year and the past ten years have felt urgent.

So What Can I Do?


We must do something, we must act! Terrible things will happen otherwise! But if these are dire times, then the good news is that these must also be just as sacred times. If you prefer another word, the mornings and hours through which you pass are no less likely to turn miraculous and touched with light.

Either way, we must continue to wake up and feed our dogs and make our coffee and eat breakfast and go to our jobs and make time for our loved ones (I’m using my life as an example. Your life pattern may look quite different). But to make a difference and feel as though we are active, intervening in the chaos, and making things right, somewhere in all that busyness we should find time to reach beyond our individual lives and choose what we want to focus on in the bigger picture. Choose something manageable. We can’t fix everything. Then know that you are doing something to lessen the world's suffering, so maybe you'll feel less guilty about all the other causes you can't fix or help.

Also, take your fatigue from all those social media posts and the bloody, raw ache of the news and tend to it. It belongs in your garden. Especially be self-aware if anything in the mainstream news is relevant to your personal or family history. Do what you need to do to heal any past trauma, major depression, or anything else that has created negative patterns (what I’m calling the “weeds” in your garden).

Keep that self-awareness when you start moving outward to mend relationships and work toward the outer world. If you move too fast, back up and slow down. Rather than giving you a list, I’m trusting you with your own inner instinct. You have to learn what works. When do you know what’s good for you? Is it a loosening in your shoulders? Or do your teeth stop gritting? Figure that out, and it’ll be your true north for decision making.

Last, keep contact with people who genuinely want to know the answer to the question: Are you okay? If you're not, let your friends, family members, support system or me know. My contact information is below.

If you feel you are experiencing compassion fatigue, or even "burn out", please consider contacting our diverse team of professional counselors and therapists New Leaf Counseling Group in Charlotte, NC at 704-774-3078 to schedule a free initial consultation - or click here to book an appointment online. We are ready and waiting with room for you to GROW.

1 comment

1 Comment

Richy Banty
Richy Banty
Oct 31, 2021


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