Compassion has really taken a beating in our country for the last several years. Our nation is increasingly and destructively divided into two main camps, and this shows up in all manner of issues. Access to safe abortion vs. “Pro-Life.” Blue State vs. Red State. Mask wearers vs. MAGA hat wearers. And all the while, the things that could bring us together lie on the side of the battlefields, suffering and ignored.
There is such a thing known as compassion fatigue. "Compassion fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper," says Tulane University’s Dr. Charles Figley.
I think some of us are suffering from a version of this. This, in combination with a something known as Learned Helplessness, which is a behavior exhibited by a subject after enduring repeated aversive stimuli beyond their control. It was initially thought to be caused from the subject's acceptance of their powerlessness: discontinuing attempts to escape or avoid the aversive stimulus, even when such alternatives are unambiguously presented.
I know that I experience this. I know that when I must go out, either for groceries, or to deliver help to someone in need, I feel this visceral anger when I see people who are not wearing masks, or an irritation when I see people where their masks covering only their mouths, and not their noses. I just keep thinking to myself “Do you NOT care for the other humans!?!”
And to have this wrapped up in a political and cultural war between those who are happy to deny basic rights to others, but feel oppressed because they are asked to wear 3 ounces of fabric on their faces...it just brings up in me more of both the compassion fatigue and the learned helplessness.
This is the moment when I reach deep down into my sense of spirituality and I look for ways to approach people rooted in our Seventh and First principles. We are ALL connected through an undeniable network of mutuality in an interdependent web in our existence. At times, now, this sometimes frightens me in a way that used to comfort me.
And I consider our First Principle, rooted in our historic Universalism. Every person has worth and deserves dignity. This can be hard to sit with in times such as these. But a spiritual life is one that sometimes demands that you work hard. No person is beyond love, and perhaps it is their own lack of feeling love that makes them respond in the ways they do.
Perhaps if they truly felt loved, they would care about the children in cages along our Southern border. They would care about the People of Color (and others) who feel fear when they open carry weapons that are not designed to hunt anyone but human beings in war. They might care that people need food. They might see that their choice to not wear a mask is not about state rights vs. Federal rights (being seen right now in an obverse and perverse twist.)
Perhaps. But right now, it’s all I can do sometimes to go outside, wearing my mask, and exchange companionable looks with others who are also wearing masks.
We can no more control the people on the other side of these issues than we can be controlled by them. We can no more reason with them than they can intimidate us with their messages of fear bourne of their own privilege.
But we can love. It’s a hard job, I know. But we can reach past our own despair, our own fatigue, our own sense of fear, and we can do as former First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama has taught us: “When they go low, we go high.”
This is our choice to make every day. Make the choice that best suits your own spirit, choose the next right thing, choose the road of compassion.