“…for there is nothing heavier than compassion…” -Milan Kundera
Keep your ears open for “compassion fatigue.” Its time has truly arrived.
Charles R. Figley is a champion of the phrase–he wrote a book by the same title in 1995. Figley’s experience with trauma victims in Vietnam led him to coin the term, which, if you stare at it for a minute–the warm-fuzzy of “compassion” married to the cold-prickly of “fatigue,”–has a more than a whiff of the verbal architecture of victimhood. It could be a joist or beam in The House That Political Correctness Built (Now With Safe Spaces!!).
On the other hand, one look at Figley’s bio makes it clear he’s no huckster. A Marine out of high school, he molded his battlefield trauma insight into a Ph.D, tenure, a Fulbright, and 25 books. He came to New York immediately after 9/11 to counsel first responders, the very man for the job. So, no disrespect to Figley, who appears to be a fine and successful American. It’s just this damn phrase he advocated for, nearly twenty-five years later, is somehow perfectly au courant, a new filter for an old photo.
Words, words, words. Language is nothing and everything, it is the air we breathe, unnoticed until it changes. Until there are rules and sanctions on our breathing–then each inhalation is a conscious act, like permanent yoga. What was innocent becomes fraught: all of a sudden, we’re guiltily gathering fig leaves for our mouths.
If that sounds hyperbolic, consider the stereotypes associated with an accent, any accent. Consider that certain words are off limits to some people, but not others. Don’t forget the current squabble over preferred pronouns, or “deadnaming” trans folk. Language is now a minefield, and the disarming logic of the quaint children’s rhyme, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” has bounced off of leftist academia like rubber, and stuck to broader society like glue.
A term once reserved to describe troubled mental health professionals and emergency/trauma personnel, compassion fatigue is also known as Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS)……..[whoa. Hold up. Isn’t that slick, they gave it two names! If “compassion fatigue” doesn’t cut it when your boss asks why you’re out sick, just tell him you have a case of STS!]
To be fair, compassion fatigue a.k.a. STS is certainly a real complaint employed to describe people with what we used to call “burnout,” or just plain old boring stress. “Complaint” is emphasized because it’s not a medical diagnosis, more like a hipster band-aid for a mental boo-boo. But it is real inasmuch as people have been complaining of its symptoms for decades. That said, the phrase itself is problematic, as it assumes a human predisposition to compassion that is empirically not universal. It follows that as a quasi-diagnosis, it may only be applied to those who have previously identified as sympathetic to a given group, cause, or notion, such as:
- A palliative care nurse who became painfully disillusioned while caring for dying patients.
- An aid worker who witnessed the human toll of a natural disaster.
- A lawyer who was unprepared to represent a trauma victim.
Here’s a guess about some potentially confounding aspects of these textbook hypotheticals: the ugly bits are missing. The problem with namby-pamby terms such as compassion fatigue is that they mask the very real reactions humans sometimes have to each other, and not just the hopelessness of their condition. Sometimes we discover that we hate those we wanted to help. For instance, let’s say the palliative care nurse is regularly fondled by one or two of her dementia patients, and the head nurse says, “Susan, I hate to say it, but sometimes that’s just part of the job.”
Let’s say the aid worker–who knew he would see dead bodies in the hurricane aftermath–hadn’t anticipated his anger at the looters, who, despite receiving aid themselves, stole from and damaged the only stores that offered employment in the neighborhood. And our lawyer? As a starry-eyed grad, she’d chosen public defense to help the downtrodden, only to learn that many of her clients are nothing but litigious opportunists.
Compassion fatigue sounds a lot like growing up. It sounds like the friction of sheltered people scraping against things from outside the bubble. For those reasons, it is guaranteed to be diluted and abused as an excuse. It could be the new fibromyalgia, the next carpal tunnel syndrome! It’s a great way to explain away a socially unacceptable reaction: you’re a vegan but you had some cheesecake? Compassion fatigue. You rudely bustled past an elderly person hurrying to work? Compassion fatigue. Feeling a little racist today? Compassion fatigue. STS, even.
Compassion fatigue also has an ugly, unnamed cousin: let’s call it “dispassionate denial.” Not mentioning the elephant in the room. A recent example:
The morning after the world learned of the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, the Episcopal Rector of a prominent New York cathedral who had based his Easter sermon on the popular movie, “The Shawshank Redemption,” decided, despite the fresh, gruesome reports of hundreds of dead Christians, to blithely proceed with his musings on Andy and Red and how their plight mirrors the Resurrection. A one-liner mention was made of Sri Lanka (with a shout-out to New Zealand for PC counterbalance), but no moment of silence, no prayer. Presumably he didn’t want to sully such a joyous day, so he abjured his clerical duty. Maybe his STS was flaring up.
Several articles have been written over the past few years about compassion fatigue as it relates to people formerly sympathetic to the massive migrant influx into Western Europe. The authors–in The Guardian, The Economist, BBC, and the like–are saying the locals from once sleepy hamlets and orderly cities who now deal with no-go zones, acid attacks, public fondling, ridiculous increases in rape, shootings, grenade attacks, and a heavier tax burden are suffering from, you guessed it, “compassion fatigue.” The apologists have landed.
Such are the self-deceptions, the cuddly euphemisms of the left.
The words “compassion fatigue” won’t save you from actual hardwood sticks or mineral stones. If your daughter comes home raped by refugees, as in Malmo, London, Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Stuttgart, etc., or doesn’t come home at all, as in Rotherham or Glasgow, you might find yourself with a bad case of “compassion fatigue,” which, roughly translated from Left-ese, means “harsh awakening.” It beats having your soul crushed, your genitalia brutalized, fear of STDs and pregnancy, plus contracting a real disorder such as PTSD.
Language matters. Reject cumbersome, veiled phrases and the well-meaning phrases that created them. To paraphrase Andy Dufresne, “get busy speaking truth, or get busy dying from lies.”