Usually, the encouraging thing about providing support is feeling reassured that we are adding value, making a difference and bringing about a change for the better. It drives us, motivates us, gratifies us even and aids persistence when the going gets tough, nudging us in our stride forward.
During every crisis, big or small, emerges certain humankind that steps in to help, protect and provide. People who cannot sit back and watch, who cannot choose convenience or complacence, who is stirred by the suffering of others and set out with whatever little they have to give and heal.
Mankind has seen and survived a lot. Heroes have helped pick up after nature’s worst disasters, wars, concentration camps, horrifying accidents like Chernobyl and the Titanic, at irreparable costs to themselves, with one thing simply felt, staunchly followed and stated humbly, “I just did what had to be done”.
The crisis we experience today is a deep manmade borehole that has cracked the earth far and wide, engulfing voraciously, endlessly. And in this sense, it is different from all the other crises we have faced and fought earlier.
Those that volunteer, support and fight, feel exhausted, hopeless, helpless and angry, struggling to persist, repeatedly hitting walls and dodging those ever-increasing and deepening craters. This time, with no respite in sight, no progress to measure and no solutions on the horizon, many have started to burn out. Fatigue and languish have begun to set in.
Be it frontline doctors, nurses and hospital staff who serve COVID positive patients at the cost of exposure, NGOs and private organisations that stretch every option, day and night, to provide oxygen cylinders, medicines, ventilators and beds; taxi and rickshaw drivers who are ferrying patients and the dead back and forth; people who have turned their homes into small factories to provide meals to those in need; those who have dedicated themselves to call, wait endlessly for answers, collate and verify information to pass on messages of available help and resources to save lives while some offer to assist with whatever the need be, as and when their chat buzzes–there are many heroes we can be grateful for. Recently though I have had many of these special people call in feeling angry, physically or emotionally exhausted, lost and deeply saddened. Some can’t eat, sleep, have chronic headaches and anxiety.
People who step up to help in times of crisis are the ones who are sensitive to the suffering of others. As both the cause and cost, sensitivity needs to handled with caution.
Some sensitivities that predispose people to vicariously experiencing trauma or caregiver fatigue include a history of abuse or personal trauma, new and young enthusiasts who have the advantage of passion and energy but are still to learn depersonalisation, those pushing for overtime or pulling double shifts, suffering physical strain and sleep deprivation, those who are stressed in their personal lives and do not have a personal support system, those who have difficulty communicating emotions, people who have a history of chronic illness and those who struggle to recover from what is lost in the past or are anxious about what will be gone in future.
While we need these special humans to sustain the sensitivity to be moved enough to help, we need to equip ourselves to recognise the threshold of emotionality that renders us sick or dysfunctional. Exploring and identifying the needs that cause us to be impacted enough to act in the interest of others can help prevent emotional difficulties when our efforts fall short or things don’t go as desired.
Give up control
Human beings want reassurances, guarantees and try to stir things in directions that make us feel in control.
Desire is more rational and productive than demand. It is okay to act in hope and desire for results, wishing for an effect of the action. However, demanding and depending on it or expecting it changes the tonality and intensity of our reaction when the demand is not met. Realistic and flexible expectations are the keystone to nipping angry reactions.
When a desire fails, we may experience irritation, agitation or disappointment, as opposed to a demand unmet, in which case we feel angry, blame others or be furious with the system, destiny or the crisis.
Give up compulsion
We are creatures of compulsions. In this invisible space called our minds, we believe and visualise how things should be, being rigid about what needs to be done, has to be done, or ought to be like. We have rules we start to love and do not like to shake. These rigidities give us a blueprint, a sense of belonging, familiarity and direction. Being compulsive makes it difficult for us to adjust, adapt and focus on the present. “This is how it should be”, invariably results in anxiety, anger and or sadness, simply because these “shoulds and musts” don’t exist. These are inflexibilities that we create and depend upon in search of attaching ourselves to something.
The word compassion is often misunderstood. When we give with the hope of an impact however small, we are functioning from a need to control, not compassion. Compassion is to give what you give and stop there, humbly surrendering to the consequences. Helping others naturally makes us want things to turn for the better, and when that does not happen, we experience several difficult emotions. We may judge ourselves as failing, hold ourselves in contempt, be critical about our lack of influence, feel too small or insignificant in the large scheme of things, be sucked into our past challenges or feel anxious about our future failures.
Compassion starts with love and acceptance for the self, giving with humility that transcends homes, communities, race and borders. Compassion accepts success and failures, performance and non-performance, right or wrong, goodness and manipulation all in the same breath because it doesn’t measure the result. Compassion is a process of giving and stepping away from what happens next even as it unfolds, good, bad, a beginning or an end.
“Compassion fatigue” is thus a phrase that can be challenged at many different levels. We do not get tired of compassion, we get tired of waiting, wanting back, controlling that which we cannot, or giving into compulsive rules, expectations and rigidities. Hope withers and get replaced with anxiety when we try to become a part of the consequences.
Create consciousness of what can be done by you today without entangling yourself in the impact of those actions. Those of us who are courageous, compassionate and conscious, neither tire nor retire.