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Fighting ‘compassion fatigue’

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, November 17, 2005

Have you heard much about the continuing disaster relief from Katrina and Rita lately? How about the earthquake in Pakistan or the tsunami in Thailand and Indonesia? That our awareness of the day-to-day struggles of the victims of these disasters wanes long before their need for assistance ends is not news. In fact, “compassion fatigue” becomes fodder for news stories following almost every situation of disastrous loss.

However, we have an obligation to keep these brothers and sisters of ours in our hearts, long after the first heartfelt weeks of contributions and prayers.

A recent family emergency brought home to me once again that large-scale disasters are simply tragedies that happen to one family at a time, multiplied by hundreds, or thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people. Just last week, my cousin, her partner and their dog escaped from their apartment during a fire that had probably crept through the interior walls of the large old house they shared with six other apartments. They literally lost everything but the clothes they had on – they even had to have new car keys made. The old house burned to the ground and was subsequently bulldozed. Imagine losing every beloved photograph, every book you own, your furniture, your socks, shoes and every article of clothing … this story needs only to be multiplied by several tens of thousands, with water substituted for fire and Louisiana for Massachusetts, to encompass the stories of the people of the Gulf Coast last August and September.

As we in our family pray and share updates and information, as we send gift cards and money and try to figure out what more we can do to help, I have thought over and over again that so many, many families continue to share this experience on a larger scale with their own relatives who have lost everything due to a hurricane, an earthquake or a tsunami. And of course, that’s not even counting the perhaps hundreds of thousands of people in the poorest parts of New Orleans, in the mountains of Pakistan, in Bande Aceh, Indonesia, whose housing before these disasters was tenuous at best and who now face a quality of life we cannot imagine and would not tolerate for one of our own family members.

Perhaps we don’t even have “compassion fatigue,” but simply a sense that this is all too much to take in, that there’s no possible way we could do anything to help need of this magnitude. “This is all so overwhelming,” my cousin wrote to my mother in an email from a borrowed computer. “Overwhelming” can easily lead us to a condition we might call “compassion paralysis” where we end up doing nothing simply out of the confusion of not knowing where to start.

I guess we just start like our family has the luxury of starting: one family at a time. If we can recognize that somewhere out there lives a family, perhaps just like our own, that desperately needs our prayers, some clothes, some supplies to rebuild or clean up or move, some warm blankets or coats or boots, and if we could send those to a reputable relief organization, then perhaps together we could continue attempting to meet needs that continue to exist. Looking ahead, we could pay attention to, and pray for, the discussions that have begun to take place which will hopefully create changes on a larger scale. We cannot stop hurricanes, earthquakes, tidal waves or sometimes even fires from wreaking their havoc, but we can be better prepared for them – we can work for better quality affordable housing; we can honestly examine whether we should develop and build extensively in unstable coastal areas.

My family’s local parish here in South Bend has begun a program to send hundreds of large “clean-up buckets” to the southern United States to help with the digging, scrubbing, scouring and disposing that remains ongoing. It helps my husband and I and our children to know that our buckets will get to a family who will actually be able to use the supplies inside to make their home and their possessions livable, sanitary and wearable.

As Thanksgiving and Christmas approach, we stand on the edge of about six weeks of abundance and plenty. We can also use these weeks to be about gratitude and generosity. Maybe the ongoing needs of our displaced brothers and sisters around the world will displace some of our own wants during these weeks to come.

Kate Barrett is the Director of Resources & Special Projects for Campus Ministry. She can be contacted at Barrett.28@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.