When Compassion is Exhausting

The first year of giving a crap, that’s the exciting one. For me, it was back in 2009 and Twitter was a twinkly new toy and microgiving was a new buzzword and everyone had a birthday campaign.

“This year for my birthday,

all I want is clean water for a village,

all I want is malaria meds for children is Sub-Saharan Africa,

all I want is to rescue a girl from sex-trafficking.

Click here.

Click here.

Click here.”

We were beginning the adoption process for our youngest and every day there was a new organization or adoptive family with a story and a thermometer and we could do it together if we all could just give a crap and give a dollar.

I’m still amazed I have any friends left online. Everyday I was retweeting, sharing, and posting about someone’s initiative to Rescue! We could Save People! If only we cared enough and stopped buying lattes all the time and instead gave that five dollars a month to This Photo of a Child Sitting in the Dirt.

Sometimes I miss Year One of the work. I miss how starry-eyed I was. The truth is, giving a crap takes a toll.

You learn stuff.

You realize it’s harder than it looks.

You want to quit and some people do.

The child sitting in the dirt becomes more than an icon for suffering and you realize he’s skin and bones and heart and soul and needs more than your latte money, pity, and accidental exploitation.

After seven years of working in orphan care, global development, and community transformation, I still care with all my heart, but my compassion has matured. I hope less like an old apple core and more like a good bourbon, with layers and undertones.

It’s okay not to care.

Let me clarify. You cannot care equally about every single thing that flits through your Facebook feed. You are finite and you are gifted differently and have different life experiences than the person next to you. You’re going to find that thing that makes your heart swell and do that and let the other things go with a passing prayer for someone else to step up. And it’s okay. We all need to give a crap, but not about everything equally.

It’s going to take time. You are not the savior of the universe and using a hashtag or giving five bucks isn’t going to solve it. Let me clarify again. Those things are good and we can support other people’s passions. Give the money. Hashtag it up

But for our passions, for the things burning deep in our souls keeping us up at night moving us to tears liquefying our insides, it’s going to take more. It’s going to take partnering with really smart local people who have big plans for their own communities. It’s going to take lawyers and therapists and social workers. It’s going to take a lot. Which is why you can’t care about everything because the thing you need to care about the most needs your attention over the long haul. So find a thing and dig deep.

It’s going to take a hell of a lot of humility. Get quiet and learn stuff. Ask questions and listen. You will mess up. I have done everything wrong. I have taken photos when I shouldn’t and handed out toothbrushes when people didn’t need them and prayed awkwardly for someone who asked for healing before finally trailing off in defeat and wandering away in embarrassment.

I have doubted myself and gotten tired and I’ve wanted to pretend I never heard of poverty alleviation. My eyes have crossed themselves through books about economics in the developing world and I’ve smiled and nodded when the thirtieth person has shown me photos of the Summer Mission Trip.

Compassion fatigue is real and the guilt is overwhelming. My year 2009 was a high, and then began the slow slide down off the mountain of We Can Do It.

No. No we can’t. It’s impossible to care this much for this long. I’m not Jesus, after all.

Yeesh, that all sounded very dire. And holy cow, Mel, I mean, people living in difficult circumstances don’t get to quit or take a break. Yep, that’s a thing you can say to yourself to feel extra guilty.

Okay, so seven years later I’m still here, giving a crap and staying in it. What’s helped?

Finding a team. For me, hanging out with other people passionate about the same thing. I’ve worked with HopeChest for seven years because I believe in their community transformation model and the local leaders who know the needs of their communities and dream big dreams. The people I’m shoulder-to-shoulder with have kept me in it when I’ve gotten tired and spurred me onward when I’ve wanted to get out and let the grownups handle it.

Remembering stories not stats. Maybe it’s because I’m not into math, but numbers don’t inspire me as much as the people behind them. I want to hear about the mom who has a new job providing for her kids who are working hard in school. I’m inspired by the teen girl in the tailoring school and the boy studying to be a doctor after a doctor saved his life.

It’s been seven years since I started to give a crap, and I’m not planning on stopping. I began a relationship with people in a village in Northern Uganda who were living in a government camp. A group of widows needed a little help realizing their dreams and plans for their community. With time and consistency between our two communities, we’ve seen them move back into their homes, establish income generating projects, improve the health of the vulnerable children living there, and achieve higher education and leadership training.

I love partnering with people to make some small bit of difference in the lives of others. For a long time we just kept putting one foot in front of the other, getting one child sponsored, raising money for one development project. But over time we’ve seen the destiny of an entire community change from mere survival to thriving, to succeeding at their dreams.

I know I’ve had to say no to more things than I’ve said yes to. But I’m so glad I said yes to this. I’m so glad I stayed in it. I’m so glad I got to be a tiny fly on the wall of this community’s transformation.

Today you may have a lot of things coming at you. Open up the internet and you have thousands of places that need you. What do you need to say yes to? What do you need to scroll past? Consider which part of the weight of the world is yours to carry and carry it well. Leave the rest for the rest of us.

Melanie Dale

Writer at Unexpected
Melanie Dale is a minivan mama and total weirdo who stinks at small talk. Her laugh is a combination honk-snort, and it’s so bad that people have moved away from her in the movie theater. She adores sci-fi and superheroes and is terrified of Pinterest. Author of Women Are Scary: The Totally Awkward Adventure of Finding Mom Friends and It’s Not Fair: Learning to Love the Life You Didn’t Choose, she’s also a contributor for Coffee+Crumbs and an advocate for Children’s HopeChest. Her writing has been featured on Parenting.com, Scary Mommy, Working Mother magazine, Deadspin’s Adequate Man, Ann Voskamp’s A Holy Experience, and Today’s Christian Woman, and she’s a panelist for MomsEveryday TV. Living in the Atlanta area, she enjoys recording her podcast, Lighten Up with Melanie Dale, and blogging at Unexpected.

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  • Joanne Peterson

    This is so well said……

  • I agree 100%! We cannot be all things to all people – ultimately, it is better to go deep in a ministry than to be shallowly involved in many things!