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I recently heard a series of TED talks on Compassion. Given the work we do here, I was interested. The speakers pointed out that all world religions emphasize the need to be kind, caring, concerned, understanding, loving, and generous. Compassion is a virtue stressed in most cultures, and over many centuries. So, why aren’t we more compassionate?
Of all the reasons given, fatigue is the most interesting to me. Compassion fatigue is found among many veteran humanitarian aid workers and emergency responders. After years of working against impossible odds, some become frustrated, impatient, and discouraged. They don’t stop caring; in fact, they often try harder, with even greater self-sacrifice. Unfortunately, the harder they may try, the less effective they become. It’s like exercising the same muscle for too long without rest: you grow tired, begin to feel pain, and eventually damage the tissue.
To restore the compassion that motivated people to become aid workers or emergency responders in the first place, it’s necessary to rebuild personal resilience by restoring healthy brain functioning. It takes more than will-power or mental grit. Both our ongoing programmatic research and cumulative field experience suggest that this is best accomplished by increasing meaningful social support, self-efficacy, meaning and purpose, and physical health and fitness. While all four are essential, strengthening the sense of meaning and purpose is particularly helpful. It’s important to develop and maintain a perspective that is bigger than any given moment, regardless of how dramatic or tragic. Whether this is anchored in religion, personal philosophy or worldview, or appreciation for nature and creation, it’s essential to nurture a sense of meaning that transcends time and space. Feeding the “soul” through meaningful conversations, reading, music, worship, counseling, meditation, and other contemplative activities helps to restore and maintain compassion while ensuring a realistic perspective, personal balance, and general effectiveness.
Over the past 15+ years, the Headington Institute team has helped many individuals restore and maintain their compassion, enabling them to thrive and continue in their important work. Compassion fatigue can be reversed.
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