Compassion Fatigue and Refugees

Refugees have been a major world news issue for years now, and we are beginning to see the consequences of compassion fatigue. When it comes to refugees (or really any issue) you can effectively address compassion fatigue by following the example of Jesus, focusing on your passion, and know that it's okay to need a break at times. 

Compassion Fatigue and Refugees

Syria's war has raged on unabated for more than five years. Refugee news has regularly flooded our news feeds for the last two years. Twice now the world has been shocked by images of Syrian children caught in the chaos of it all.

And we're tired.

We're tired of bad news, false hopes, and unending, cyclical reports of borders closing in Europe and boats capsizing in the Mediterranean. We're tired of countless appeals for donations from countless aid organizations who are helping countless millions of refugees. We're tired of wrestling with difficult questions and trying to balance the conflict between wanting to keep our countries safe and also wanting to help those whose countries are not.

So, we give ourselves a break. We glaze over when another stricken face pops up on our phone or computer screen. We skip over the articles about refugees in our newsfeed and the passages in our Bibles that mention "the stranger." We mentally check out when our friends mention a presidential candidate's latest comments about refugees or immigrants, and we avoid social media debates about them like the plague.

We have compassion fatigue. When it comes to record numbers of global displacement due to wars and persecution around the world, our compassion has all but run dry. Compassion fatigue is defined as "indifference to charitable appeals on behalf of those who are suffering, experienced as a result of the frequency or number of such appeals." For those who work with refugees directly, either through humanitarian aid or resettlement organizations, this fatigue can actually manifest as physical symptoms of stress and exhaustion.

[bctt tweet="When it comes to record numbers of #refugees, our #compassion has all but run dry." username="refugee_review"]

As a Christian who is particularly passionate about God's heart for the displaced, I find myself feeling guilty when compassion fatigue sets in. How can we, who understand that we shouldn't just ignore the suffering of others, but also feel as if we must look away at times, respond to the compassion fatigue we feel while also becoming more Christ-like in our response to suffering? Here are three things we should all keep in mind as we encounter compassion fatigue with refugees or any other issue.

Follow Jesus's Example

During Jesus's earthly ministry he was often surrounded by large crowds. Many of the individuals making up those crowds were there because they desperately wanted Jesus to heal them of an illness or injury. These long days surrounded by suffering people in great need were emotionally and physically exhausting. Jesus experienced compassion fatigue too, but in addition to understanding compassion fatigue he also demonstrated how we should respond to it. Jesus didn't give up on his ministry and he certainly didn't blame the suffering people who needed all the compassion he had to give. Instead he went away by himself to rest and to pray. Luke 5:16 tells us that this was a regular habit of his, and elsewhere in Scripture we find that he would specifically retreat by himself after being around large crowds.

[bctt tweet="#Christians need to imitate the example of #Jesus in how we respond to #compassion fatigue. " username="refugee_review"]

We should learn to imitate this example of Jesus. He knew that he did not have unlimited compassion to extend to hurting people, but that God was the source of his emotional energy. We cannot continue to care about the needs of the world or keep serving others in our own limited strength. We need a way to replenish our compassion and as a Christian I believe the way we do that is by tapping into God's never ending supply through prayer and communion with him.

Focus on Your Passion

You can't do everything. It's hard to hear, but it's true. You can't champion every cause; you can't conquer every giant; you can't right every injustice. But you can focus on one cause or one injustice that you are passionate about. If you focus on just one thing, you can ultimately have a greater impact because you'll spend your time and resources tackling a single issue.

[bctt tweet="You can't champion every cause, conquer every giant, or right every injustice. But what can you do?" username="refugee_review"]

My passion is educating Christians about refugees. Focusing on that passion means I spend time writing for and maintaining this blog. I also read a lot of news articles about refugees and refugee resettlement policies and study what the Bible has to say about welcoming the stranger. While there are a lot of other issues that are interesting to me (poverty, race relations, missions, etc.) I don't feel a need to focus on them because they are not my primary passion. I can reserve some emotional energy that otherwise might be spent worrying about those issues because I know that other people are focusing on them and they're doing a great job!

Spend some time praying and thinking about what your passion is, and then focus on it. That could look like focusing your charitable giving specifically on that issue. For example, if you are passionate about refugees then you might donate only to organizations and ministries that work with refugees instead of feeling guilty because you can't respond to every solicitation for humanitarian aid donations. Focusing on your passion might also mean learning more about that particular topic instead of trying to keep abreast of every issue in world news. We only have limited compassion to give, so find what you love and give your energy to that rather than spreading your compassion thin across all the world's suffering.

It's Okay to Need a Break

[bctt tweet="It's okay to need a break. #Compassion fatigue is part of living in a broken world." username="refugee_review"]

Even when we're practicing the principles I've talked about (not relying on our own emotional strength and focusing our compassion on one issue), we might still need to take a break at times. This is especially true for those whose passion is also their job. It's okay to need a break. Compassion fatigue is part of living in a broken world. What's important is to recognize when you need that break and to know how to step back from your passion without feeling guilty about it.

Sometimes a partial break will be enough and all you might need to do is take a hiatus from your volunteer commitment for a week or two. If you are working in a field that requires constant compassionate energy (i.e. social work, nonprofit, humanitarian aid, etc.) you might need a break with little to no access to internet so that you can completely step back from your passion and refuel for a few weeks. Don't feel guilty for needing to press pause on your compassion, because you will be able to invest more fully and effectively when you return.

Have you struggled with compassion fatigue? How did you address it

and do you think to dealt with it in a healthy way?

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