How to combat the paralysis of ‘compassion fatigue’? By taking a step toward one another and striving for empathy.
I’m not sure who coined the phrase “compassion fatigue,” but anyone in America who cares about justice must be feeling it these days.
There are so many things to worry about, so many systemic oppressions about which we’ve become more conscious, so many threats to our basic civil society that too many of us (rightly) cannot seem to focus on any one thing for long.
With immigration, gun violence, #MeToo, institutional racism, transphobia, environmental justice, generational poverty or so many other pressing concerns, too many of us feel like we’re bolted to our seats, transfixed as we snap our heads jarringly back and forth like spectators at some kind of grotesque tennis match.
It used to be that, for many of us, it felt hard to figure out what was just. Now, for too many of us, it feels like we know exactly what justice looks like but have no conviction it can be achieved (and not much confidence we can even move the needle).
When societal problems appear so intractable, what can we do to avoid the paralysis of compassion fatigue? The prophet Micah has wisdom to offer here. Micah prophesied during the 8th century BCE. During his lifetime, he rails against political corruption and oppression in both the northern and southern kingdoms, witnessing first the invasion and subjugation of the former and then the anxious relief of the latter when it is spared the brutality of Assyrian conquest.
How do we function when confronted with complex and overwhelming societal problems? Micah’s answer: simplify! “[God] has told you, O man, what is good and what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Rashi, the 11th century sage, asks, what’s the difference between walking with God and walking with our fellow human beings? When it comes to people, he says, “If one man embarrasses his fellow and comes to appease him, the fellow says to him, ‘I will not accept your apology until this person or that person, before whom you disgraced me, comes [to make amends].’ But the Holy One of Blessing desires only that the man’s return be between the two of them.”
Paradoxically, God is big enough to avoid making failure bigger than it needs to be. Whereas human beings tend to blow things out of proportion. The solution? Try to be a bit more like God.
When humanity’s baser instincts get you down, says Rashi, focus on the positive. Yes, we have a tendency to allow small problems to become bigger ones until each flawed human interaction escalates into communal failing and then societal degradation. Micah’s philosophy of modest walking doesn’t ignore this reality, but it also recognizes that moving forward begins, to paraphrase the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu, with a single step.
And what step should we first take? A step toward one another. We start with our family members, our friends or our co-workers. We start with a stranger we encounter in line at Starbucks or an acquaintance from shul. But to be most effective, we start with those whom we’ve hurt or those who have hurt us, perhaps even someone with whom we disagree politically.
The sage Shammai says, “Greet each person with a gracious expression on your face” (Avot 1:15), which implies we are to do so even (perhaps especially) with someone we dislike or who has caused us harm.
This isn’t easy, but if we can repair one broken relationship, have empathy for one person with whom we disagree (or allow that person to come to better understand us), we can begin to move forward. Sometimes it’s as simple as giving someone the benefit of the doubt.
It’s no accident that Micah’s metaphor is about walking. Justice must be done. Goodness ought to be valued. But journeys are best undertaken with traveling companions.
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg is the spiritual leader of Beth Am Synagogue in Reservoir Hill, where he lives with his wife, Rabbi Miriam Cotzin Burg, and their children, Eliyah and Shamir. This column and others also can be found on TheUrbanRabbi.org. Each month in Jmore, Rabbi Burg explores a different facet of The New Jewish Neighborhood, a place where Jewish community is reclaimed and Jewish value reimagined in Baltimore.