For those who try to navigate the world from a place of care, life can be exhausting. Caring as a lifestyle is a recognition of the threads that tether us to each other and to the world; it is an affirmation of our interconnectedness. But there are so many things to care about, so much suffering, cruelty, and injustice. Human and animal suffering, the environment, social justice, poverty, hunger, political and institutional corruption—these all seem to be things we have an ethical obligation to care about. So how do we navigate our whole lives from a place of care without burning out, without retreating into apathy from the sheer inundation of the world’s problems? How do we recognize and meet others’ claims on us? It can be so much easier to walk a narrower path, to move through the world guided by an ethics of self-interest rather than an ethics of care. Let me say from the start that I don’t have the answers.
Compassion fatigue is well-documented among those in what we can call the caring professions, from doctors, nurses, and veterinarians to, more broadly, social workers, aid workers, emergency first responders, and even defense lawyers. I’ve seen it among activists in documentaries. For example, the two young women in 2015’s The Hunting Ground (Andrea Pino and Annie E. Clark) who have dedicated their lives to helping other survivors of sexual assault, who listen to their stories and sometimes talk them down from suicide, at certain points seem understandably overwhelmed by the responsibility.
Maybe sympathy must be balanced with a measure of detachment. In another documentary, 2014’s Pelican Dreams, I noticed a technique used by a man who rehabilitates pelicans that have been injured by increasing human interference in their environment. The filmmaker at one point asks the name of a particular pelican, and the rehabilitator insists gruffly that he doesn’t name them. He just uses numbers to keep track of them. But it’s not because he doesn’t care about them; his every word and action shows he does. The not-naming is a deliberately adopted measure to prevent himself from caring too much, from getting too attached, so that he can still sleep at night after releasing a bird back into the hazardous world.
I have a friend who is a counselor for troubled teenagers. I’ve seen counselors and therapists who, having been in their profession for a long time, have found it necessary to build a self-protective wall between themselves and their patient’s suffering. They have to remain detached, to let their patient’s problems go when they leave work, or they’ll be consumed by the suffering of others. But how do they balance empathy and detachment? How does one draw boundaries around care? My friend is still learning; her work still follows her home.
This same friend uses the metaphor of a bucket: she pours her whole bucket of emotional investment into her work. In order to replenish that bucket, she has to practice self-care; she has to spend time not thinking about work, or, conversely, spend time talking with people in the same line of work who understand. Humor helps too, she says; this reminds me that I’ve heard of nurses making jokes about patients in a way that would seem insensitive to outsiders, but really just allows the nurses to stay afloat emotionally.
But you don’t have to be someone who specifically works in a field that alleviates suffering to experience compassion fatigue. You can feel it as someone who nurses your aging parent or your sick child, who volunteers at a shelter for the homeless or a shelter for animals, who has a friend with PTSD, or who just reads the news daily. So many of us are in some sort of constant contact with the suffering of others, and need to find the balance between apathy and taking all that suffering on ourselves. Caring is hard emotional labor—the kind that, in many of its forms, has been most often demanded of women, and is rarely renumerated. Given this, new demands on our care can leave us feeling resentful.
I have an email account specifically for the emails I receive from animal welfare or environmental organizations. Once or twice a day I check it, sign countless petitions. Occasionally—not often enough—I send money. Sometimes stories or images in those emails, or in mail sent to my house, will haunt me for days, weeks, longer. I feel angry at the human cruelty and ignorance they often expose, and frustrated at my own helplessness. But that anger and frustration irrationally redirects itself at whatever organization is giving me this information, and thus asking me to recognize another claim on my care. (Did you really have to include that graphic image, PETA?) It’s the same with ASPCA commercials; I have to change the channel immediately. See me. Care about me. That’s what the eyes of starved dogs and cats in cages plead to the strains of Sarah McLachlan. I do care. I don’t want to see.
Guilt and irrational anger also merge in the discomfort I feel when faced with human needs I can’t adequately meet. In the warmer months of this past year, I used to see the same homeless woman begging on the sidewalk every time I drove to my nearest pharmacy. I rarely carry cash, and I would always feel relieved when the traffic light was green, so that I had no chance to stop for her in any case. But I remember she would stand with her arms outstretched, the universal gesture of supplication. See me. Care about me.
It’s easier not to really see, because then you have to care. And then you have to help.
The temptation to turn a blind eye, to be willfully apathetic, stretches from small personal decisions—like my looking away from the homeless woman—to ones with much broader social implications. For example, I find myself increasingly seeking out apathy when it comes to politics. We have a responsibility to care about politics because the election of those in power affects every aspects of the lives of those most in need, as well as the welfare of the planet we inhabit. I was fiercely passionate about re-electing Obama in 2012; I thought the election of Mitt Romney would be catastrophic. I even (temporarily) unfriended a cousin on Facebook because of his pro-Romney postings. But now, with far worse potential presidents in the running, the election season hurts too much to think about. I find myself avoiding reading or listening to the news. In the search for a “leader of the free world,” it may (sadly) be too much to expect a public servant of moral wisdom and practical integrity. But to be forced to accept that such a bullying, blustering, buffoonish, narcissistic blowhard as Donald Trump could actually be president almost makes me want to throw in the towel on caring about my country. Trump and his almost equally ridiculous GOP opponents, all preying on ignorance and fear, expose not only the moral bankruptcy of the Republican party but the seemingly irresolvable division of American society into two sides that can never see eye to eye. Given a problem so seemingly insoluble, the temptation to slip into apathy is all the greater.
It’s easier to think of reasons why something or someone doesn’t really deserve your attention or help, to justify to yourself why it’s not your responsibility to care. But I am afraid each time I find myself doing this, afraid I am burying deeper and deeper a voice in me that matters. Afraid that someday I won’t be able to hear it at all. I don’t want to let it fall silent.