Compassion Fatigue

A man charges his electric wheelchair, while tending to the bandage around his recently amputated leg. A mother and father plead for the rescue of their daughter from her homelessness and mental illness. A father chauffeurs his son around town to locate a heroin detox facility. Welcome to a day in the life of Visalia Rescue Mission.

There’s a term for what first responders, pastors, humanitarians, and social workers experience after a short time on the job: compassion fatigue. Simply put, we become indifferent to need. Sometimes I blame the individual. At times I point a finger at the broken system, which disregards the homeless, mentally ill, or drug-addicted too easily and too early in their recovery — or enables them, which makes me rage at entitlements with too little oversight and safety nets to ensure recipients aren’t selling their EBT cards for drugs and alcohol, which is a very common occurrence.

When I’m overwhelmed by the need and am tempted to throw in the towel, I realize the other interactions I have:

  • A two-strike felon and former gang member — who is also a VRM gradate and staff member — sings Wilson Phillip’s 1990 hit “Hold On” while cleaning bathrooms. He mentions how grateful he is to have toilets to clean, compared to stainless steel (prison) toilets to use.
  • I hear my name being called from across the street — it’s my neighbor, Brodie. He is also a VRM graduate and staff member, who is now married and on his own. As I wave and walk on, I remember how he first arrived to the Mission in his addiction — “strung out bad” and on the run from a drug dealer.
  • A mom shares about the day Child Welfare Services took custody of her children, “As I watched them take away my kids, my kids were screaming and screaming for me, but I had no emotions. I couldn’t cry. I knew I was supposed to cry, but I couldn’t because I was so high.” This mom now has her kids back and manages our Women’s Shelter.

While compassion fatigue is very real, it’s ironic to learn that compassion actually means “to suffer together,” which actually really helps keep things in perspective. I have never endured nights on the street with the homeless, encountering the hardships they do. I have never served time in prison and bunked with a gang member. I have never been addicted to any drug or alcohol and commiserated with a fellow addict over beers in a city park. I am not “compassionate” in those ways. 

“In saying, “be compassionateas your loving God is compassionate,” Jesus invites us to be as close to each other as God is to us.” This analysis in the book, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, makes sense when you look at Matthew 8. In this story, a leper approaches Jesus for healing. Jesus responds to an extremely infectious disease by touching the man. He chose to be as close to that man’s suffering as he could get. 

While I don’t think we have been consciously aware of this, we’ve been practicing this very thing at Visalia Rescue Mission for the past 35 years. We’re always learning how to answer the question, “How can I touch this individual or this situation? What will make the greatest impact? What is really needed in this circumstance? We don’t always get it right, and while the need pushes on the boundaries of our empathy, we are committed to suffering together with our guests, just like Jesus chose to suffer together with us.

Ryan Stillwater

Ryan is a longtime Visalian — a graduate of Redwood High School and Fresno Pacific University with a bachelors degree in Christian Ministries. Intrigued by the partnership between the Visalia Rescue Mission and the City of Visalia, Ryan began putting his vision on paper as VRM's Oval Venue Coordinator in August 2013, and has sparked the interest of many throughout the community. Ryan and his wife Amy (a Mt. Whitney High School graduate) have been married for seven years and have three amazing kids — ages 6, 4, and 4.