“We have not been directly exposed to the trauma scene, but we hear the story told with such intensity, or we hear similar stories so often, or we have the gift and curse of extreme empathy and we suffer. We feel the feelings of our clients. We experience their fears. We dream their dreams. Eventually, we lose a certain spark of optimism, humor and hope. We tire. We aren’t sick, but we aren’t ourselves.” – C. Figley, 1995
I’ve been holding on to an important essay for weeks. It written by an eleven-year-old girl. My daughter Avery was the one who told me about it.
“Remember that hero essay contest I entered last year at school?” she excitedly exclaimed, nearly bursting through the front door one afternoon. “Well, my friend entered it, and guess who her hero is? Me. I’m her hero.”
“What?” I said, my eyes filling with unexpected tears. “This is amazing! Doesn’t it make you feel so good?”
“Yes,” she said wrapping her arms around me and releasing a heavy sigh. “Yes, it sure does.”
In that moment, there was an unspoken understanding between us about the significance of this recognition. We knew from her participation last year that the hero essays were most commonly about adults, not children. We also knew there could not be a more perfect time for Avery to receive this affirmation. It’s been a tough season with medical visits, friendship issues, and physical awkwardness. In one hand-written tribute in No.2 pencil, pain eased and hope grew.
But this gift wasn’t just for my child; it became mine too. After asking for a copy of the essay, I found myself coming back to it again and again.
There was something about this young writer's description of the impact of seeing her friend perform acts of kindness, honesty, creativity, and generosity that brought me unexplainable peace.
The last section of the essay was pure oxygen to my soul: “Even though she is only two months older than me, Avery is the perfect hero for me.”
There was something about this essay that felt bigger than a beautiful connection between two friends. There was something about the essay that felt globally critical and needed by people beyond our small circle. I trusted that understanding would come in time.
A few days ago, it did.
I was three weeks into my very tiny, but hugely impactful meditative practice for busy-minded, anxiety-prone people. I’d been drawn in by the promise of instant ease from worry and stress, and it was working.
I began noticing when I most needed to take a one-minute breather and the pattern that immerged was very telling. After I read or watched news reports and when opening my email or messaging inboxes, I felt the need to close my eyes and check in with my heart. Both situations made me feel overwhelmed, helpless, and stressed.
On one particular day, five messages came into my inbox at once. The subject headings stacked on top of each other created a story of pain that could not be dismissed:
“Help me, please”
“I am broken”
“A tragedy is unfolding, and I don’t know what to do”
“Don’t share this with anyone”
“I can't go on”
Just like with the news on television, pain came right into my home, right into my heart, with no solutions, no plans, no hope, no direction. Just pain.
And unlike in years past when I was able to power-through the feeling of overwhelm with optimism, I felt paralyzed.
I decided to research. With knowledge, comes strength. I needed to know what was happening.
When I read this passage, I felt like I’d struck gold. I read it three times, wiping away tears of understanding with each reading:
Studies of oncology nurses, trauma workers and even marriage counselors, among others, have documented a common “compassion fatigue” that seems directly related to the amount of emotion shared. “In particular, listening to people who are suffering and not being able to do enough for them puts a tremendous weight” on caregivers, said Dr. Charles Figley, a psychologist at Tulane University.
Fatigue often results “when you’re seeing the same problems repeatedly, when they’re chronic, and when the outcomes are not good,” said Bret A. Moore, a former Army psychologist and co-author of “Wheels Down: Adjusting to Life After Deployment.” “One sign that you’re there is that you start hoping your appointments cancel.”
The public has a similar reaction to mass joblessness and starving countries alike: the problems sap the imagination in part simply because they are daunting and have not responded well to previous efforts. We have already pumped billions into each, with little visible effect. If only they would cancel their next emergency. (source)
Compassion fatigue. I’d never heard that term before, but it felt comfortingly familiar, like a well-worn prayer. It helped me understand that while there was nothing actually “wrong” with me, there was a real reason for the pain I felt. I suspected I was not the only one experiencing this right now.
After mulling over my discovery, I began searching for a cure for compassion fatigue. Part of it came in a photo by my brilliant friend Alexandra Rosas who has a gift for integrating life’s highest lessons into ordinary daily events. A few weeks back, she’d posted a picture of a note her teenage son wrote next to his stash of Jolly Ranchers.
“Because you're always stealing my Skittles, and I needed to control it.” Proud of his assertiveness, proud of his compromise. Proud of his comma use. Happy Friday. Find something to celebrate today. #raisegoodhumans
Although weeks had passed since I saw this post, her words had stuck with me. Alexandra found reason for celebration in a simple, yellow sticky note, and it made me feel tingly, warm, and hopeful inside.
I quickly rummaged through the papers on my desk until I held the hero essay in my hand. I read it again, for what felt like the 50th time. Its broader importance finally coming clear …
This young girl had found something to celebrate: loving human acts that often go unnoticed — acts that are certainly not newsworthy, but they are remembered for days, years, even decades after they’ve been done.
Beauty and love in everyday moments and human interactions
“Find something to celebrate” quickly became my STOP technique in moments of overwhelm, sadness, and hopelessness.
I began limiting my time with media and information to ten minutes in the morning, afternoon, and night. If at any time it felt overwhelming, I would say, “Stop. Find something to celebrate.”
It was quite easy to find something to celebrate.
I found it in sweet nectarines
My purring cat
My daughter’s singing voice
My fluffy socks
I found it in my still, small voice when I got quiet
My running shoes as they hit the pavement
My husband’s neck, smelling the fresh aftershave I got him for Valentine’s Day
This practice of absorbing less negative news and celebrating glimmers of goodness was helpful, but I felt it was only half the prescription for healing. Something more was needed. Thankfully, it came in a visit from a friend.
My friend had read something I recently posted about a dark moment in my life that occurred one year ago. She came to my house to look in my eyes and tell me she was so sorry I went through that. She also wanted to remind me that I could call her if that ever happens again.
But what she said next, completed the cure for compassion fatigue. She said, “You don’t have to be strong with me.”
And when she hugged me, I began to cry.
And when I went to let go, she didn’t.
She held on.
So I did what I rarely do, I let her carry the weight for a moment.
As she held me, I thought about that little girl who looked at Avery as her hero simply because “she is there for me when I am sad.”
There I was with my own hero, sitting with her on my couch, saying things we rarely hear from others, from ourselves, from society: “You don’t have to be strong with me.”
Dear ones, you don’t have to be in the helping profession to experience compassion fatigue.
You don’t have to be a caregiver to sick, aging, or needy individuals to be weary at heart.
You don’t have to be battling a medical condition, grieving the loss of a loved one, or dealing with conflict to be broken hearted.
You just have to be human.
The news of the world can be a lot to bear.
The events of our lives can be lot to bear.
The worries of our minds can be a lot to bear.
It should come as no surprise to think that at some point, we would become emotionally depleted.
That’s about the time we tell ourselves to buck up … pull it together … put on a brave face.
But that is not how we revive lifeless hearts or heal a world of hurt.
That is when we must use the rarely spoken, little known cure for compassion fatigue:
Turn off the noise and turn toward each other.
You don’t have to be strong with me.
I don’t have to be strong with you.
Let’s just sit together awhile, sheltered from the noise and the hurry.
And that’s when we’ll notice that little tree outside the window—the one we planted when a beloved grandpa and father died one year ago. Avery’s been assuring us for months that there’d be blossoms.
And sure enough. There they’ll be.
Tiny, pink blooms in the midst of the winter rain.
That sight will bring tears to our weary eyes, and we’ll celebrate that wondrous sight together.
You know what that will make us?
Heroes breathing oxygen into humanity’s lifeless heart
One No. 2 pencil essay,
One orange Jolly Rancher,
One weak moment of strong solidarity,
At a time.
My friends of the Hands Free Revolution, it seemed fitting given the timing and topic of this post to celebrate the first birthday of my book, ONLY LOVE TODAY, which released one year ago! I am giving away four beautiful gift packages that include a signed copy of the book (signed by myself and Avery) along with four gorgeous items from the HANDS FREE SHOP! Click here to see the items and enter the giveaway!
Over the past 7 weeks, I've been experiencing celebration, discovery, connection, and renewal from my Soul Shift family. What began as an online course to release old, destructive habits and heavy baggage, has become a community of hope, healing, and support for the participants, including myself. Please consider being part of this momentous journey when it begins on April 23. Click here to be notified via email when registration opens at an early-bird price.
Lastly, if you are reading this from my email newsletter and would like to comment on the post or share it, please click here to see it on my blog. Each time you share my posts, a new person joins us and has hope he or she did not have before. Thank you for being a mighty force of love in our hurting world. I cherish you dearly.