Wednesday 30 November 2016

Compassion fatigue

Here's a nice non-controversial topic for people to get their teeth into - compassion fatigue. We live in a world with arguably not enough compassion. At least not where it really matters, which is at the government level which dictates policy. Good causes are routinely ignored and marginalised, greed and ego regularly triumph over common sense and decency. And in many cases, humanity. With governments unwilling to help in a meaningful way, all sorts of good causes turn to the general public instead. You and me. And they don't so much turn to you as assault you. Relentlessly. From all sides and using all channels. Physically and online. When is compassion too much compassion?

I work in Canary Wharf. Not exactly a bastion of charitable causes, but I make no apologies for that, it is just a job. I typically arrive on the Jubilee line, and emerge from the bowels of the earth into the cavernous hall. And here, every single morning, is where it begins. A wall of volunteers with buckets, beseeching commuters for donations. Dressed up, bright, cheerful, friendly and smiling. The causes are universally worthy, there is not a single one where I have ever thought that it was a bit rich, so to speak. There has been aid for Syria, collections for children's hospices, for homeless shelters, a fairly practical one recently asking for winter clothing for rough-sleepers (I gave an old coat for that), cancer, alzheimers, you name it and it has probably been there. But here's the rub - it is every single day. And with every single day comes the compassion fatigue. A day here and there and I would likely drop coins in (it does not help that cash is on the way out). But daily and I have become hardened and embittered, immune if you like. And so I feel desperately sorry for those volunteers or charity workers who are there - it is surely their big pay-day so to speak. Canary Wharf at rush hour, the mother lode. But what they don't see is that there was a similar group there doing the same thing yesterday. And the day before that, another. I wonder if when they convene at the end of the day they are disappointed, cursing me and the stingy financial community, or if in fact they do quite well versus other locations? I have no idea.

I actually tend to give money to charity online. Not in response to appeals, simply standing orders or direct debits, fire and forget. It's just easier that way, there is no pressure, no thought necessary. But the online world is under seige as well. I barely use any forms of social media. Twitter is my one real concession, and I follow well under a hundred accounts. Almost all of these are nature related, mostly birds. And of course with that comes, via tweet and retweet, streams of bad news and an almost endless calls to arms. To sign petitions, to do this and to do that, so show support via a click, to express concern. Some I click, some I sign, in fact nearly all I probably sign, as I do actually care about the issues at stake enough to do so. The government ePetitions on driven Grouse shooting, the absurd new visitor centre at Spurn that very few local people actually seem to want, but I can tell you that after several years of this ad nauseam I am getting genuinely tired of it. It is almost as if my brain just switches off, filters it out. Oh look, Natural England has granted another licence to shoot Buzzards, another Hen Harrier has been found dead near a Grouse Moor. Yup, more of the same, next. It's not dissimilar to the almost indifference I sometimes feel when there is yet another terrorist atrocity somewhere in the world, or another air disaster. These things happen so frequently and then are burned into your retinas for endless hours by that scourge of modern society known as "Breaking News" that you end up desensitised to it, immune. The media saturation has the exact opposite effect to that presumably intended, but if you didn't turn off you would end up a basket case, unable to concentrate, an emotional wreck. 

And yet you feel bad, or at least I do. I should care more. I should get involved myself. I should give money. I should promote these causes. I should retweet this. I should sign this. I should make my voice heard. I should express my disgust. If I don't then I'm a bad person and other people will think I don't care. I do care, but compassion fatigue is an actual phenomenon and should not be confused with or be assumed to be an excuse for heartlessness. It isn't, I'm not heartless, but I am definitely sick of both bad things happening as well as people trying to do good. This patently ridiculous, how can I get annoyed by both when one is a solution to the other? 

There are two types of compassion fatigue however, and I have been talking about the minor version. The more serious compassion fatigue is actually a form of traumatic stress disorder caused by emotional exhaustion and it occurs, ironically enough, in caring professions rather than just passers by like me. People can devote themselves so fully to the care of others - people or animals or indeed a cause - that they are affected by it in adverse ways that at their extreme could cause exactly the opposite of caring behaviour. Ultimately it's the same underlying reason - over-exposure to bad things, but seeing too many petitions or watching ten hours of BBC rolling news isn't going to turn me to substance abuse, it's just going to continue to raise my levels of cynicism to new heights.

So what can be done to counter it? I have no ideas I am afraid, not one, which is rather tragic.


  1. The charities are only businesses where the ones getting the majority of the takings are those owing and running them. All they need to do is stick within some rules and laws on percentages and clean up.
    Anyone wonder why they (charities) love the DD. It's so they can package them all up and sell them on as an investment on the futures market.
    Legalised con where the cause is lucky to see 2% of contributions.
    I leave the door steppers to my wife. She'll look them straight in the eye and say no thanks. End of.

    1. I think I've finally found someone more cynical than me Ric, though your attitude to squirrels is a little disturbing!

    2. My take on these things is much as Jonathan describes, although I am happier with the description of the platform/street collectors as "chuggers" = charity muggers! I got that from The Rev Sue Shaw, whilst on holiday in Kefalonia - the bloody "God Squad" get everywhere! I am happy to donate my loose change to those rattled tins of The Salvation Army and The Royal British Legion, I also have a Direct Debit for Age UK (I could be getting a return on my charitable actions fairly soon?) - the others are whistling in the wind whilst in my presence and I have no problem explaining this face to face or over the phone. I have only so much to donate - end of!
      As we are talking stuff charitable, I wonder if there is a "give a grey squirrel a home for Christmas" one? Quite what Rich is doing offering them Bourbon biscuits is very questionable? Maybe fattening them up prior to a baked squirrel banquet - if they were in my garden, it would be a .22 air rifle pellet for starters.