Cause Fatigue

I’ve heard the phrase “compassion fatigue” tossed around for awhile now. Wikipedia tells me that it was first coined in the ’50s to describe the attitude of people who work with victims of trauma, and how they became cynical and desensitized to the suffering of others. I hear it mostly used now in the context of our interconnected world, where photos of every natural or manmade disaster are commonplace and lose their emotional effect.

Particularly in large scale disasters, our minds simply can’t wrap around how immense the situation is; what 190,000,000 gallons of oil in the Gulf, 200,000+ casualties from the earthquake in Haiti, or 27,000,000 victims of human trafficking around the world really look like. The numbers are just too huge, the ramifications too immense. Stalin may not have been off when he quipped that “when one dies it is a tragedy. When a million die it is a statistic.”

I wonder if there’s a similar effect, something like “cause fatigue.” There are so many causes to rally behind – poverty, hunger, human trafficking, the environment (which has plenty of specific causes like recycling or reducing dependency on oil), simplicity over consumerism, fair trade, disaster relief, clean drinking water, researching disease cures – the list is nearly endless. All of these are valuable, meaningful, and generally good things to pursue. But no one can take all of those into account all the time.

Let’s take a small example, like making dinner. To try to take all of those causes into consideration leads to a massive list of questions about my food: how was it grown/raised (i.e. organic or free range, plus research into what those terms actually mean)? What kind of effect will this food have on my body? Were the workers who came into contact with this food paid a living wage and treated civilly? Is the company that profits from buying this food ethically sound? How far away did this food have to travel? How much gas was used in that transportation? What sort of environmental impact did the production, packaging, and transportation of this food have? Plus probably some more that I haven’t even thought of.

Trying to go through that laundry list of requirements and research just to prepare a meal sounds exhausting. Now imagine that extended to every aspect of life. There’s simply no way to try to live into all of those at once, we have to choose at most a couple to take up. That feels so disjointed and hypocritical though; how could I take up women’s rights but not human trafficking, because those are so interconnected? Or poverty without rehabilitation or mental health advocacy, since many of the people who live outside have addiction or mental health issues?

Everything is connected. There are no simple answers to try to fix anything. Just on an organizational level, as human beings we tend to muck things up – even if we had the resources necessary to try to resolve a problem that still wouldn’t guarantee progress.

As individuals, there’s very little any of us can do to truly impact a cause.

But even with all of my cynicism and cause fatigue, I’ve begun to think that it doesn’t so much matter which cause(s) I choose to rally behind, but rather that I do it at all. There’s something life giving and grounding about looking at something larger than myself and my minuscule problems; about having compassion for others even if I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the numbers. And that’s worthwhile, even if I never manage to enact change – which is valuable to be reminded of, because true change and progress are so difficult to achieve.

I don’t know yet what the big “thing” I champion will be. That’s part of my further exploration of myself and my identity that I’ll probably be fleshing out for some time.


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