In college, I made the observation that compassion fatigue might be more aptly termed compassion psychosis. After living in Nicaragua these past few months, I have decided that they are two distinct phenomena. Compassion psychosis arises from facing an overwhelming amount of need and not knowing what to do about it. I knew this well in college, where I was surrounded by talk of injustices and outrages and urgent needs in the local community, the country, and the world. In Puerto Cabezas, I struggle with the knowledge that many of the kids I work with are undernourished and witness violence in their homes. On the street, I'm always being asked for food and money. Jesus' command to give to all those who ask of you continues to haunt me and infuriate me. He must have been just as surrounded by poverty as I am. How on earth could he have lived up to that mandate? How did he avoid people becoming dependent on him, seeing him only as their savior, the cure for their ills, not another human being with his own need for relationship and compassion? If Jesus simply is the savior of humanity, it seems like an impracticable example for me to follow.
With an ever-expanding consciousness of the great needs in the world, I want to be compassionate and share the suffering of so many people, it feels like nothing I do will be enough. Instead of looking to where I am making contributions, I'm always looking to where I'm not making contributions, and my sense of myself as a compassionate person evaporates. I get so wrapped up in all of this suffering, I cannot be present to the needs that I can respond to, right in front of me. That's the psychosis.
It seems to me to the solution is focus; I must concentrate on those needs that are in front of me, that I can respond to, and leave the rest in God's hands. There's a good reason the people here seem much more willing to leave burning issues of poverty and injustice to God. There are simply too many of those issues for any one person to face, and the strain of poverty prevents the development of a community that can confront its own poverty effectively.
Compassion fatigue, on the other hand, comes from being overly present to the needs in front of me. Listening to peoples' stories, building positive relationships with people who have so few positive relationships in their lives. I can do this, and I know by doing it I am making some small transformation in myself and in my world. A young friend tells me that she got drunk and had unprotected sex with a relative stranger, so I offer to accompany her to the clinic to get tested for AIDS. She didn't know that there was still a possibility that she was pregnant, after taking a test immediately afterwards, and broke down and sobbed for 10 minutes in the nurse's office. I know all I have to do is be there. I don't have to offer advice. This is entirely within my capacity. And yet, upon arriving at my home, I feel so drained of emotional energy I can only collapse in my hammock and stare at the ceiling.
The only response I have to this is to dig deeper into my spiritual life. This Lenten season, I have been reading the Psalms like a dope fiend. They have been a wonderful vent for my frustrations and articulation of my hopes.