Avoiding Compassion Fatigue...in an ADHD World

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Suzanne Tucker

Remember Biafra?

If you’re of a certain age—likely, 60 years old or more—you might remember magazine covers and TV shows devoted to the awful famine in Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War.

How awful was it?

More than 3 million people died of starvation. That is roughly equivalent to the combined populations of Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg.

Awful.

Remember Bangladesh?

Beatle George Harrison staged the first of the “big star concerts” to raise money for the famine there in 1971. Everybody bought the multi-LP album that featured Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar, Eric Clapton, and other musical greats of the day.

Estimates hover around 1.5 million for the casualties of Bangladesh’s famine after its civil war with Pakistan. That’s roughly the population of Montreal.

We don’t talk about Biafra or Bangladesh anymore, the way few of us talk nowadays about Sudan, or Kampuchea, or Haiti, or the Tōhoku region of Japan.

Today our attention is focused on—well, whatever today’s news focuses on. But it’s not as if everything today is fine in Nigeria, or Bangladesh, or Sudan, or the rest, right?

So how do we properly respond to a big world in which needs surface according to their “newsworthiness” but rarely get solved immediately, and instead just disappear from our notice?

The best advice I was ever given about charity was this: Listen to your world, to the people you know and the causes you recognize, pray about them, and then commit to contributing what you can to those few that stand out to you.

Instead, that is, of responding to every push of the “compassion” button, which runs the risk of compassion fatigue, invest in a few key causes: month after month, year after year. Learn about them. Communicate with the agencies you admire and encourage them. And give what you can, in money and other resources, to help them flourish.

By way simply of illustration, then, let me tell you that my wife and I give regularly to Haiti Partners because my cousin Kent Annan helps to run it, and we admire Kent, and because it does interesting, innovative work to educate Haitians for a better future.

We give regularly to Steve Bell’s music ministry here in Canada, because we’ve known and appreciated Steve’s art for a long time and we recognize that the financial model by which he skillfully managed his career for decades has disappeared. Modern-day patronage is now required.

We give regularly to Amnesty International, even though we disagree with some of their policies and procedures, because we think that freedom is crucial to just about every other good, and particularly the freedom to dissent. Amnesty seems to do vital work on this front.

And we give regularly to our local church.

We also donate time. Kari works with elderly people suffering from mild to moderate dementia. I gladly offer pro bono work in consultation, coaching, and speaking especially to alumni/ae, pastors, Christian organizations, and professorial colleagues.

Each of us has a calling from God to spend our lives in certain ways—and thus not in all the other ways we could be spending them. I try to remember that doing what God wants me to do, fully, freely, and effectively, entails doing precisely nothing about almost everything in this big world—but doing what I can in a few small ways.

So I haven’t run out of concern for Haiti’s future, or Steve’s music, or Amnesty’s clients, or our local church, or the people I serve in volunteering. Instead of my compassion being stretched too thin or becoming too distracted to focus on anything, I care more and more as my relationships with these charities deepen.

I pay attention to the news, and I pray immediately for anything and anyone that touches my heart. But I focus on those few things to which I believe God has called me.

Maybe that pattern can help you, too?

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).