Jun 12 2008

Comfortably Numb

Have you ever repeated a word over and over in your head so many times that it eventually loses its meaning and starts to sound like nonsense? It happened to me the other day with the word “lemon.”

I said lemon so many times that it started to sound like a word I made up. Or like a word from a foreign language. After a while, the word “lemon” was meaningless — it no longer represented a tangy, yellow fruit. It was just a funny sounding nonsense word running through my head.

I think Satan likes to use a similar technique to get us to stop caring about the hurting people of the world.

Whenever we make an emotional connection to someone in need, we are motivated to act. So by getting us to feel disconnected from a certain group of hurting people, he gets us to stop acting on behalf of those who need help. One of the ways he does this is through what’s been called “compassion burnout” or “compassion fatigue.”

When a major crisis happens, the news media often reports it so quickly and intensely that for a time, it’s pretty much impossible to get away from it.

Remember watching TV the week after September 11, 2001? No matter where I looked, I couldn’t escape the horrific images. Those first few days, I couldn’t watch the news without crying. But after a while, I had heard the same stories reported so many times that they no longer affected me the way they did at first. I got used to the horror. I got numb.

Were any of you in this same boat with me? Maybe for you it was the coverage from Hurricane Katrina. Or the Asian tsumani. Or the earthquake in China. Or the Global Food Crisis. The list seems endless, doesn’t it?

This article, recently posted on urbana.org, addesses the idea of compassion burnout.

What do you do when you’ve heard something so many times that you get fatigued … you’re tired of helping, tired of giving, tired of caring?

How do you keep from getting overwhelmed with the desperate needs of the poor or numb to their pleas for help? How do you not get discouraged by the never-ending necessity for compassion?

The article includes several good suggestions for preventing burnout.

But what I’d love to know is how you deal with this on a personal level. Are there things we can do in bringing the needs of the poor to your attention that will help create the emotional connection and keep our stories from getting stale?


UPDATE: Aug. 25, 2011 – The article is no longer available on urbana.org.

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  1. CathySmith
    Jun 12, 2008
    at 8:51 am

    Becky, I had just left this comment on another site I had read, and then I read your blog. It seems to apply!
    I believe that we in the West ARE under spiritual attack, and we suffer from the spiritual warfare! It just isn’t like the out and out attacks that so many of our other brothers and sisters in Christ are suffering. Laziness, apathy, blindness, lack of concern and love for our brothers and sisters that suffer for the Testimony of Jesus Christ, worldliness and conforming to the world in all areas of our lives instead of living and being a Pecular People for Christ…all these things are what we live under and IS a spiritual warfare!!! The enemy will destroy God’s people, whether is is directly or subversively!!! Wake up God’s People, Wake up Christians, followers of Jesus Christ…Pick up your Cross daily and die to the desires of the mind and flesh, and FOLLOW JESUS! Be a LIGHT to a dying world. Be LOVE to those that are unlovable!!! CARE! Care that the world is dying without Christ, and know that when you don’t do anything it is the same as denying HIM!
    You and all those that “GO” and serve the Body through Christ, will be prayed for by those that are AWAKE! Praise His glorious Name!

  2. Steven Williams
    Jun 12, 2008
    at 10:41 am

    For me, I’ve been able to avoid the numbness by keeping in ‘real’. I was able to visit my sponsored child and several Compassion student centers in Ethiopia. I use those memories and photographs. We all love the pictures, but I actually know the names and personalities of some of the children in mine. I also made a wonderful friend while there who keeps me up to date with how things there are going.

  3. Jun 12, 2008
    at 1:31 pm

    I suppose it’s human nature to become numb, but I believe it is our sinful nature that is at the root of the problem.

    I am prone to numbness, and when I examine the cause I generally discover it a lot to do with a huge mug of selfishness with a shot of laziness on the side.

    Test the theory.

    Surf the TV channels until you find Sally Struthers(or similar) and force yourself to watch. As numbness overcomes you, ask the Lord to search your heart for the root cause.

    You’ll likley need a bucket and mop, because what pours out of our hearts can be quite messy.

  4. Jun 12, 2008
    at 4:35 pm

    Thanks for this post, Becky. After reading it, I sent a link to the Urbana article to my advocates team, along with a brief note about becoming “comfortably numb.” I sure do relate to the syndrome.

    Dave, I can’t disagree with you, entirely, because I am also both selfish and lazy. On the other hand, it would seem that God made us with whatever emotional make-up we have, including the self-protective need to “put a lid on it!” when we feel overwhelmed. On the *other* “other hand,” putting a lid on it in self-protection is not exactly laying down our lives for others.

    Aw, crud. I really wanted to lay this one on God!

  5. Jun 12, 2008
    at 4:39 pm

    I’ve struggled with this myself. It can be really tough watching some of the Compassion videos. I want to go on the site and sponsor all of the children. The thing that faces me is that I don’t have a clear cut income, since I do my own businesses. So, I can’t quite go and spend the money when I have it, because I don’t know when I get it next. Then at the same time, I’m challenged to live by faith and that sometimes we need to step out in faith, trusting the Lord. The last thing I want to do is sponsor a child and in the future have to withdraw. I couldn’t imagine doing that to one of those little children.

    I started thinking about that and also thinking about what Christ did. He came to the earth and He invested His life into His disciples. As a matter of fact, there were times that He would leave people with genuine needs and would spend the time with the disciples. He did this so that He could send them out to preach. (Mark 3:14). By concentrating on the disciples, He was able to concentrate on the whole world, so that when the book of Colossians was written, it describes the Gospel as having been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. So, our Saviour really reached an entire generation with that strategy.

    What I learned from that is that the key is discipleship or multiplication. That’s why I’m so excited about the model of Compassion. It emphasizes the long term relationship between a child and a sponsor.

    So, I see the child as not just the fruit, but the seeds in the fruit. For instance I sponsor a little girl named Dulce. She is a really nice little girl. She got saved and then her mom got saved. Now, recently I’ve gotten letters from them and they are sharing the love of Christ with all of the children in the area. I was so excited, because the Gospel is not just stopping with her. It’s reaching other children through her and God can cause those children to reach totally different children through them, etc…

    So, I’m learning to pray for those people who are hit with devastations, but at the same time, I focus on the area, where I can have the biggest influence. In that way, I will reach those other areas too. Just like Paul didn’t start the church in Collossae, but it was started by people that were reached in churches that he had started.

    I hope that makes sense.

    Blessings,

    Kees

  6. Jun 12, 2008
    at 5:01 pm

    Great point, Kees! Instead of feeling lame because I can’t sponsor 25 or 100 kids would benefit no one. I can do my part to nurture and disciple the several children that I do sponsor, and let the Holy Spirit do the work of multiplication.

    I don’t think that means I can turn a deaf ear or a blind eye to disasters, global starvation, and the like, as long as He gives me the means to share out of my plenty. But, being self-employed in a business that depends largely on other businesses which are heavily influenced by the economy, I do understand about not being sure when more money will come in. Prayer for guidance, wisdom and good stewardship is critical.

  7. Jun 12, 2008
    at 6:33 pm

    I constantly come across things that jolt me out of complacency. Books, movies, speakers, people I meet, things I read on the Internet, things I see on television. Here are some examples.

    Some things shock me:
    http://www.huaren.com/UnitedNations/photo-1.htm

    Some things devastate me:
    http://www.pulitzer.org/year/2007/feature-photography/works/

    Some things inspire me:
    http://www.threecupsoftea.com/

    Some things educate me:
    http://www.amazon.com/Too-Small-Ignore-Children-Thing/dp/1400070430

    I’m just a mother and a housewife, but I truly do seek every opportunity to learn and expand my world view. And then ACT on what I learn whenever and however I can. My impact may be small, but I love this quote — “The smallest of actions is always better than the noblest of intentions.”

    I also love this quote — I think it applies:

    “Some have envisioned Jesus coming to the big city. Instead of heading for the largest church in town, He goes out on the streets to mix with humanity. He views the street children; He views the elderly street people whose nameless faces have long been forgotten by whatever family they may have had; He views an endless series of other sorrows and injustices – and He weeps! He weeps and will not be comforted for He did not come to be inspired by the reverent and respectable in their churches, but He came to see what His servants are doing to fulfill His command to rescue the lost and suffering.”

  8. Miriam
    Jun 12, 2008
    at 7:20 pm

    There are a few things I do.

    1) There is one thing I look at every day. I look at and study the gifts of grace that God gave me.

    Spiritually speaking, this world is a sewer worse than the garbage dumps pictured on this site. But God picked up a diseased and lost girl from that spiritual sewer and made her a princess of heaven. When I think of that, I can’t help but be everlastingly grateful to him, not that there is any way I could repay him. Because there isn’t ONE good thing in me that isn’t a gift of that same grace.

    This realization has been buried deep in me, and it tares down any “I’m not like them” walls that might go up.

    2) I don’t watch the news. I get my news from other sources like this website and don’t really miss any important news. It keeps me from the barrage of misleading, irrelevant and hysterical stuff that comes from the Propaganda Machine (also known as the TV).

    3) Financial decisions (and all other decisions) are made on a non-emotional basis. Compassion isn’t a feeling, it’s action. So when I decide to help someone or give to the Food Fund, I don’t have to work up a feeling. I choose and my feelings fall in line or they don’t. It doesn’t matter. Usually when your Will takes the lead, emotion eventually follows along like a compliant puppy.

    At the same time, I also don’t give on over-wrought emotions. It all has to do with that God adopting me thing again.

    You see, God allots me resources from his vast supply (which include much more than money). If he gives me more resources, it means he feels he can trust me to do with them what he wants. If he doesn’t give me enough resources to do something, he must not have wanted me to do it…even if it’s something I wanted to do. If I am faithful to him, the end result is his responsibility.

    Of course, figuring out what God wants of our resources isn’t an easy thing. God wants us to grow up and learn to make the sort of choices he would make. But he has given us pretty clear guidelines in Scripture if we learn them and if we trust him enough to put them into practice.

    An example of this is the principle of First Fruits. No, the Tithe is something else. First Fruits is giving the WHOLE of the first thing to God…whatever that first thing is. So my fist paycheck of the year is God’s (before taxes or any other deductions). If I receive a bonus, the first one in the year belongs to God…you get the idea.

    Of course my emotions whine, “But why did God have to make the first bonus so big. I might not get another one this year.”

    But it doesn’t matter, the decision was made long before I knew I would get a bonus. So giving some of it to the Global Food Crisis Fund was really a no brainer. (BTW, First Fruits are not allowed to go towards my sponsorships. That also is something else.)

  9. […] and come to the aid of those in need!  How can we continue to ignore their cries for help?  Do we emotionally disconnect with these situations in order to shield ourselves from the guilt of materialism, greed and […]

  10. Mar 7, 2011
    at 11:01 am

    For a long time, I was angry with my relatives who fled from their country seeking a prosperous life. In the meantime, their friends and families stayed behind suffering. They were not interested in engaging the fight anymore for justice.

    I grew up in the US, learning about their suffering, identifying with it, but not experiencing it personally. My passion and compassion grew out of a broken heart and desire to bring change. But recently, I discovered how weak I really am.

    We were at a private reconciliation event trying to raise awareness for both sides of this political conflict. At the end, during a Q&A, a well-meaning but ignorant individual expressed his biases, wounding me deeply. He was obviously against my people, immersed in self-righteousness, and dehumanizing them to excuse the violence. He had bought the rhetoric of the oppressors.

    In that moment, I understood my relatives who left their homeland behind for the American dream. I wanted to quit too. This fight was just too hard. They lost hope. The problem seemed too big and they were too small to do anything about it. Opportunity knocked on their door and numbness had set in long before it arrived. I was there too.

    I surround myself with people making a positive difference.

    I rely on those who are not so emotionally connected to the situation that they still retain the strength to fight on our behalf.

    I read victory stories to remember that God is still the Almighty and at work today.

    I limit the amount of discouraging tweets, blogs, photos, articles, books, news and facebooks that I read that will drag my spirit down.

    I read the word of God and pray with strong believers who remind me of the BIG picture. Everyday.

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