“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. They experience themselves, their thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of their consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” ― Albert Einstein (modified to a gender neutral quote)
Compassion is part of the bedrock of what makes us human.
Compassion, from the Latin compati meaning ‘to suffer with’, is something that we, as individuals, both appreciate when we receive and strive to maintain the capacity to feel it and express it.
How compassionate do you feel as of late? Towards what specifically? Are they causes or individuals or groups that matter to you? Is it something that you were exposed to and felt powerless or powerful to support. If so, how long did it last? What did the experience of compassion invoke within you? A change that ignited growth or some form of despair? Maybe even ‘cancelling it’.
Compassion is a valuable and essential quality that is necessary in a community of individuals living amongst one another. (Differences among one another should not mitigate or hinder the capacity to express it to another. Recognize the difference between benign difference and potential threat due to that or those differences). Compassion is also incredibly potent when we develop the capacity to express it and feel it within ourselves, to ourselves. When this isn’t present, the neutral states can often shift into shaming rather than compassionate understanding.
When compassion isn’t tapped into in a moment where the opportunity presents itself, it can also result in progressive indifference. But why?
It has to do with compassion fatigue. Something that is innately within us loses its capacity to be felt, let alone expressed, as a result of getting tired from having to express it. It’s actually a condition, too. Specifically, it is characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to empathize or feel that very compassion.
People who experience compassion fatigue may exhibit a variety of symptoms including lowered concentration, numbness or feelings of helplessness, irritability, lack of self-satisfaction, withdrawal, aches and pains, or work absenteeism.
Does this sound familiar in any way to you? Do you notice this around you?
One of the major contributors to it is the environment that we exist in. Your vocation, especially if it requires the experiencing of many people who are challenged by something, an incorrectly charged bill, a broken appliance, an incorrect eviction, or at risk of atrocities, near death, or have died, are at higher risk.
Almost every industry has the potential to experience it. A paramedic who has 20 calls in a day, 4 of which are life threatening, compounded over time, may lose their ability to feel the urgency, depth of meaning or importance, though they may know it, by the sheer fact that our energy bandwidth cannot sustain it. And so, as a preservation mechanism meant to support the individual, less compassion is available, and it is only expressed in certain scenarios, if any. Not only does the burden of loss of capacity to express compassion affect the potential moment where it’s required, but it has a high tendency of spilling into other domains or facets of one’s life.
Compassion fatigue is widespread in society because our media saturates content, news and shows with decontextualized images and stories of tragedy, shock, atrocities, violence, heartbreak and suffering. The accessibility of it at our fingers doesn’t do anyone any favours, as the acquired ‘dopamine and adrenaline’ hit from these specific exposures drives us to experience it. But because we are separate from the actual capacity to act or do, a feeling may change, but the inaction leads the experience to being more entertainment than informative or guiding for life. This inadvertently causes progressive desensitization of individuals and groups from our basic human capacity and robs us of the ability to utilize the important tool of reciprocity and support that is found in compassion.
How is this corrected? How is this reclaimed?
We need compassion to be ever present. In the moments that it can be sustained, recuperation needs to be present in the setting that it challenges itself from being there. Most importantly, the individual or groups must recognize when they themselves are becoming compassionately fatigued. There, minimizing exposures of new allows for some space to reenergize, resolve, and get clear on things that may have stacked up.
Being mindful of social media and all media exposures is important, too. Cutting any source of media that captures tragedy, shock, atrocities, violence, heartbreak & suffering is worthy of taking a break from. If it’s your line of work, taking an absence or having the system set into place support with the consideration of reevaluation to continue is important: no industry should normalize compassion fatigue as a prerequisite to employment. This is especially true when they are made aware that the individuals in that setting are experiencing it and the subsequent side effects and symptoms associated.
When a person sees and is reminded of the importance of being able to feel and express compassion organically, it is inevitable for them to desire recapturing it, provided they are safe to do so. Our system is only capable of taking on so much high energy, high burden, high concern, high distress, before it becomes more conservative. Compassion is one of the many qualities that are hindered in this, and it’s important for us to remember this.
A society that expresses compassion hurts one another less, intentionally or unintentionally. A society that expresses compassion supports and feels more supported. Everyone has a greater opportunity of being understood for why they did something that others may deem ‘unsocietal’ like a crime, too. A society that expresses compassion develops important tools for listening to self and listening to one another about qualities and experiences of our lives that can be challenging, ultimately feeling less alone, especially in our times of need or ie: fear of/ near death.
One more time, compassion is part of the bedrock of what makes us human. Lest we not forget that; because we have for a while.