Is compassion a limited resource?

By Caitlin Kelly


Have you reached your limit?


Some people I know — usually smart, curious, globally engaged — are shutting off the news, signing off of social media.

They’re exhausted and overwhelmed.

They just can’t listen to one more killing, whether of an unarmed black American man, or a police officer, (armed but unprepared for ambush), or of people gathered to watch  fireworks in Nice or music at Bataclan or shopping in a Munich mall or in a cafe in Kabul…

They can’t hear another video of despair, of crying, moaning, screams of terror.

It’s not, I think, that we don’t care.

At least, I truly hope that’s not why.

For some, it’s caring too much.

It’s also a feeling of powerlessness and, with it, a growing loss of hope.

What will change?

How and when?

What will make a difference?

It feels too grim, too unrelenting, too much to process or comprehend.

Compassion fatigue is real.


Here’s a poem that might resonate, written by a man fed up with the materialism he saw around himself…

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. –Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

That’s a sonnet by William Wordsworth, written in 1802.

We live in divided times.

We live in increasing fear of ‘the other’, the people who dress, behave, worship and vote differently than we do.

Is it safe now (where? at what time? for how long?) to board a train (axe attack in Germany. head-on collision in Italy) or airplane (they’re about to give up looking for MH 370)…

Who can we trust, and should we?

It becomes easier and easier to mute, block, unfriend, ignore, turn off and turn away and turn inward, abandoning our best selves, our impulse to compassion.

That’s what scares me most…

I loved this story from my native Canada, a place where individual families (including one I know) are sponsoring entire refugee families from Syria, people as different from them in some ways as can be.

It’s worth reading the link, in its entirety — a bunch of strangers determined to help.

Compassion in action:


When Valerie Taylor spotted a family of newcomers looking lost in the hustle and bustle of rush hour at Toronto’s main Union Station on Wednesday, she offered to help them find their train. What she didn’t know was that some 50 people would do the same, on a day that would turn out to be one of her most memorable trips home ever.

Taylor, a psychiatrist at Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital, said she was heading home on Wednesday after what had been a hectic few days. The heat was blazing, she was tired and looking forward to getting home, when she spotted a family of seven with two baby strollers and several heavy bags.

They looked confused, she said, and a young woman was trying to help them.

Taylor went over to see if she could lend a hand.

“Are you new here?” she asked. Only one of the children, who said he was 11, could speak English.

“Yes,” he said. They had just arrived from Syria four months ago, he told her, and were looking to get to Ancaster, about 85 kilometres southwest of Toronto, to spend a few days with family there.

‘People started trying to problem-solve’

Taylor was headed in the same direction and offered to take them to the right train. To their surprise, strangers began to take notice and to help carry the family’s bags up the stairs and onto the train, some riders even making room to give the family a place to sit, Taylor said.




31 thoughts on “Is compassion a limited resource?

  1. Fatima

    I reached that point. I can’t handle another hateful tweet at someone or another shooting. Withdrawing for a short time is self care.

    1. I agree.

      As a journalist (as is my husband), we can’t (I wish) really afford to ignore what’s going on, expected to be up to date with the “latest” shooting.

      But it think it’s numbing and paralyzing as well.

      1. Fatima

        I wouldn’t completely withdraw. If someone checks every hour, check every two if it’s not part of the job. What kind of approaches do you and Jose take to not make it so overwhelming?

      2. Great question.

        Interestingly, I see stuff on Twitter (I check it often, few x/hr usually, esp w European news hours ahead of us in NY) — and he’s already trying to not tell me about the latest bad stuff to protect me.

        I spend a lot of time enjoying fun/light stuff — cooking, reading silly magazines, talking to friends, reading fiction for pleasure. I avoid ALL graphic videos and images and won’t retweet anything like that or put it on FB. I also tend to avoid the endless political dramas and infighting on social media.

        He’s a tough old nut so I think he’s less affected by it after decades of hard news photography and editing.

        We sit and stare at the sunset and garden…we’re not the sorts of people who are ALWAYS looking at our phones. I think it’s massively unhealthy to marinate in violence and anger all the time.

      3. Fatima

        I discovered the need to pull back seeing all these images and words aroused this rage for lack of a better word.

        I joke about being a 15-year-old in a 46-year-old body. I go on Tumblr and look at pictures/articles on Richard Armitage. (Also try to avoid drama in a fandom. Oy!) My balcony is my sanctuary, especially as summers feel so short in Canada. (As you well know.)

      4. I think your decision is wise — as others say — self-care. (A word I find odd, although I agree with its intent.)

        It’s a balance between engagement with the world, intellectually, politically, emotionally — and staying sane and calm. This year is one of the most disturbing and frightening I can remember in decades.

  2. This post reflects the way I’ve been feeling. It has gotten to the point where I get up in the morning and *expect* to see yet another awful news story in the headlines. It’s exhausting to be constantly switched on.

    1. Which is why we need to switch off — calm down — but not (how?) stop caring. I’m weary of “thoughts and prayers” that do nothing to effect any sort of change, as well.

      1. Europe? Boko Haram? Isis? South Sudan?

        Maybe these are not enormous wars with millions of casualties (i.e. peace?) but I suspect that civilians now fear mayhem more than we have in a while…reasonably?

    1. I love it…and that it’s my hometown.

      Jose and I keep talking about how (and we don’t see it being viable) we could move back to Canada if Trump wins; our ages and our destroyed industry work against us.

    2. I love it…and that it’s my hometown.

      Jose and I keep talking about how (and we don’t see it being viable) we could move back to Canada if Trump wins; our ages and our destroyed industry work against us.

  3. Pingback: Wonderful Blog Post on Compassion Fatigue – An Opportunity for Reflection

  4. Well, I’m torn (as a blogger living in France) between putting up a frivolous post entitled Summer Smoothies or a serious post recounting the latest terrorist horrors committed in France. As I write this, the news coming in right now is that two followers of ISIS barged into a church this morning in a quiet village in Normandy (during morning prayers) and took five people hostage: two nuns, two parishioners and the priest whose throat they slit.

    I too am torn between turning off the news or watching it attentively. I guess I’ll watch it because It’s important to be informed. Being informed is being alert. We need to know who these people are, how did they get that way and why are they carrying out these heinous crimes. On the other hand, I understand people who feel the need to switch off. Right now I feel like leaving this country (which is becoming increasingly dangerous) and going to live on one of those peaceful islands off the coast of British Columbia.

    1. It’s too ironic…and too sad.

      I dreamed for decades of retiring, even PT, to France. Canada (for the moment) is looking more and more like a safe(r) haven than Europe or the U.S. We’re fortunate enough to have that choice.

      The problem for me is the essence of terrorism — you have no idea where or when it will happen next. Avoid large crowds in public places? Obvious. Avoid taking a train? Not so much. Avoid going to the hospital (where a dr in Berlin was just killed)?

      The insanity feels non-stop right now.

      1. And my dream is to retire away from France. Yes, we are fortunate to hold Canadian passports. If I didn’t have this very good job here, I’d be back in a flash. Today, I live in Paris for one reason only: the job and its good benefits. The day I leave this job, I leave Paris (and France.) I’ve been here way too long. All my expats friend, except one, left years ago,

  5. I believe that the essential difference between what caused consternation in times long gone by and the times we live in now is not the intensity of the vitriol or even the extent of the violence; it’s the immediacy with which it enters our homes and private spaces and the difficulty of insulating oneself from it.

    I’m reading a book about Charles Manson. I know. Great light summer reading, right? Anyway, the book does an excellent job of situating his life in the era of the late 1960s. That was not the best of times for America or race relations. Back then we had three major news channels airing nightly news for half an hour on weeknights and maybe a few weekend news-ish programs. We also had radio and newspapers–enough to be informed but we certainly could opt out easily if things were getting too grim for us to process. Now, not so much.

    I don’t have cable, and my only form of social media is blogging. I have the luxury of not being too plugged in because I don’t have a job or other enterprise that requires an extensive social media presence. If I did, I don’t know how I would cope! I’m very sensitive and easily upset. I don’t have to see suffering to know it’s happening and to feel compassion for those who suffer.

    As far as social media or TV goes, I don’t see these things as good or bad. I see them as cultural phenomena. They influence us; we influence them.

    As far as compassion goes, the well is bottomless in my book. But there certainly is a danger of the walls of the well crumbling if stressed too much by whatever forces are out there demanding too much, too often.

    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment — as usual! 🙂

      So true.

      I’m on Twitter and FB a lot (partly due to the isolation of working alone at home since 2006) and follow about 900 people on Twitter, mostly news sources. It is easy to get quickly saturated with/by terrible news and, for the more emotionally porous, it’s just too much.

      My challenge,like Jose’s, is that our work also requires us to really know what’s going on, but it can be so emotionally draining when it’s so grim.

      So we laugh a LOT and I play Scrabble on the Ipad and stare at the sunset to decompress.

      Also…just unplugging.

      1. I watch the comedy version of the news–the only way I can take it (and I listen to NPR). As I said, I have that luxury–but because I had to retire prematurely on a disability because of chronic fatigue (my overly sensitive nature got the better of me!). Sigh…

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