Falling without Grace: The Messy Reality of Compassion Fatigue

ISIS, the Boko Haram, a lynching in Mississippi, a hung jury in a domestic violence homicide, the war on the poor instead of poverty, or the war on drug addicts instead of drugs, domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, friends with Cancer, grief, a proposed bill to legalize killing gays in California:  ENOUGH!  Pain and trauma are spewing at us from every direction.  I am afraid to simply “log on” as the Yahoo, Google and MSN face pages are enough to confirm the ugly that resides in this world.  Even my Facebook news feed isn’t safe or exempt.  I hear trauma all day in my role, log into it with every electronic device, and come home to hear of my son’s struggles with stealing in his classroom, friends withdrawing friendship, and bullying.

Some would call this compassion fatigue, others might call it the cost of caring, some might refer to it as vicarious trauma.  Whatever word you use, it is hitting me, hard.  Self-care is an ethical imperative for social workers in the face of the normal and expected impact of caring, and as a “diligent social worker” I take heed.  My emotion is closer to the surface, I run out of energy sooner, I’m not finding as much joy in my hobbies and I’m shorter to anger and anxiety.  I’ve run out of “push through” and now am more like free-falling.  As an awesome coincidence, as I feel myself fall, a friend of mine publishes this dynamite poem that resonates so beautifully:  Falling, by Aldon Hynes.

Only my free-fall from my self-appointed, “I can hear and hold anything” pedestal looks a little less like the graceful swan dive off the raised platform of ego into the sea of humanity below, where I find and feel relief, camaraderie, belonging and revitalization to keep fighting the good fight.  Heck, it’s not even as graceful as this guy:


No, my fall resembles that of a 1970s Looney Tunes cartoon, only unlike the Coyote, I’m not infallible, or so I’m learning:


I’m realizing that, as if compassion fatigue isn’t painful enough, I’m judging myself not for having it, but for how messy it looks and feels.  I lack the characteristics I so admire in others that struggle:  I lack grace, acceptance, surrender, fortitude, courage.  There you have it, I’m judging myself because my fall isn’t neat.  It’s messy and involves tears and tissue and nightmares and body aches and regrets and sorrow and pain and incredible fatigue.  There is no “as God as my witness” moment.  After a couple of decades of connecting with my heart, it’s just a lot of heartache: messy, messy heartache.

I remember listening to Krista Tippet interviewing Brene Brown on her weekly “On Being.”  She asked Brene about Daring Greatly, and living life with courage, which Brene defines as living openly with vulnerability.  At one point she asked, “And can you learn to do that gracefully?”  Brene chuckled, “no,  it’s rarely graceful, but it can be done with Grace.”

Maybe at some point I’ll learn what that might mean for me.  Until then, as I ache, I’m going to hang on to my friend Aldon’s words:

“and perhaps that sums it all up.
We’re all just learning to fall.”

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