25 May 2008

Compassion fatigue

Many South African bloggers have been writing about xenophobia recently, as have the news media. It's become the topic du jour among the chattering classes, in which I must include myself. What has not really been heard, however, is the voice of the perpetrators or the victims. They seem to be keeping very, very quiet.

Sue in Cyprus recently posted this Abstractions: Head, Heart and Hypocrisy?
Is it preferable that 1000 people die in an earthquake, or that one person hurts their finger?

It's a no-brainer, isn't it? One person in a bit of pain is almost nothing when compared to the agony and loss of even ten people in an earthquake, let alone 1000.

Now imagine two scenarios:

1. You see on the news that 1000 more people have perished in an earthquake on the other side of the globe

2. Someone accidentally closes a door on your little finger, almost crushing it completely

Which one causes you more physical pain? Obviously the second.

And then I saw this The Corner::
Compared with disasters like the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, those in China and Myanmar have generated just a trickle of aid. As of Friday, Americans had given about $12.1 million to charities for Myanmar, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. The group said on Monday that it was too soon to count contributions to China.

wikipedia defines it as:
Compassion fatigue is a term that refers to a gradual lessening of compassion over time. Compassion fatigue may occur when, due to the media saturation of stories and images of people who are suffering (e.g. images of starving children in Africa, or extended war reporting) people develop a resistance to these images or stories. As the impact of these messages lessens, their willingness to give to causes reduces.

And that reminded me of a book I had read nearly 40 years ago, which had the following to say on the subject:

I have before me the current issue of the New Christian in which the General Secretary of the British Council of Churches, Dr Kenneth Sansbury, reported on the Crete meeting of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches. One paragraph runs as follows: 'The Central Committee reiterated what it had already said about Viet Nam, called for full religious liberty in Spain, and offered the services of a mediator in Nigeria. It expressed serious concern over the world's food gap and protested against racial discrimination.' It is little wonder that the Church has almost ceased to be the target of satirical comedians. Not even the sharpest wit amongst them can parody us as effectively as we parody ourselves. But the image conjured up by that extraordinary paragraph ought to have been worth five minutes of the 'Frost Report' -- this august body of men, trotting metaphorically around the world expressing concern at this, grave concern at that, and very grave concern at something else.

Their sentiments were, I am sure, genuine. But it was that old word game again. We are vitally concerned about human suffering because we keep on and on and on saying so. But as a bed-rock Christian operation, it is all phoney, and the world knows it is phoney by simple logic. No human beings, even princes of the Church, have got that much compassion in them to pour out. They might look Nigeria in the face, glance at Viet Nam and shudder, but long before they reached the problem of world hunger they would be drained, voiceless and broken. And those good men would have adjourned that meeting greyer at the temples, utterly aghast at the enormity of what they had seen.

But so long as we need only wrestle with issues, our range is unlimited. We can tut-tut our way into, through and out of every problem on the entire globe, demands of the Agenda and tea breaks permitting.

I write not in anger but in contrition, for I too have played that particular word game. I have been responsible for more than my fair share of pious resolutions, only one of which, demanding majority rule in what was then Northern Rhodesia, really cost me anything personally. For the rest, like Hans Anderson's little tailor, I have killed as many as seven or eight political issues with one blow in a single session of the Methodist Conference, merely by raising my hand dutifully at the appropriate moment.

The book is Include me out: confessions of an ecclesiastical coward by Colin Morris, a Methodist minister in Zambia. I read it the day before I was to write a doctrine exam. I tossed up in my mind whether to read the magic book, Doctrines of the Creed by Professor Quicke, the previous head of the Department of Theoloy at Durham University, or Include me out. The point about the magic book is that if you read it, you pass. I found Include me out too absorbing to put down, so I opeted to ad lib the exam. I passed the exam, but I don't think that I've lived up to what Colin Morris was saying in the 40 years since I first read his book.

In the example Sue gives of the earthquake and the little finger, we like to say "I feel your pain". But we don't. We don't even feel it when it's someone else's little finger.

And I've played the same game of passing resolutions, and dutifully raised my hand to vote for a resolution that condemns this or that injustice "in the strongest possible terms" (isn't it funny that such resolutions never use strong terms, but like to say that they do?)

I remember the story in the Acts of the Apostles, where the first deacons were appointed to meet the needs of the makwerekwere widows who were being neglected in the distribution. They weren't appointed to feel their pain, but to give them food.

And then I remember the occasion when I actually sponsored a resolution at an Anglican synod, aimed at beefing up the ministry of deacons. At that time there was a drought in Zululand, and all sorts of people were sending aid, but it wasn't getting to the people who really needed it. It was getting to the people who had superior access to the means of communication so that they learnt about it first. Let it be known that the church is distributing second-hand clothing to the destitute, and every second-hand clothes dealer in town will be there, pleading poverty, but the destitute won't even get in the door.

One of the (theoretical) jobs of deacons in the Anglican Church was to seek out the sick, poor and impotent people of the parish and notify their names to the curate, so that they might be relieved by the alms of parishioners and others. The problem was that deacons never stayed deacons long enough to even begin to do that, and even in the short time they were around, they were too busy thinking of becoming priests. But the sy6nod was not concerned to make deacons more effective, it was more concerned about tomorrows headlines, and resolutions expressing grave concern at someone else's problems were more newsworthy. So when the resolution about changing the way of recruiting, training and deploying deacons came up, the synod voted to pass to the next business. Grave concern trumps action every time.


Yvonne said...

Sometimes it's simple pragmatic wallet fatigue... I donated 30 GBP to Burma and then wanted to do the same for China, and thought, do I have enough money to do this? (plus all the other charities I donate to monthly)



I have read over and over this wonderful article of yours. It is inspiring, for it makes us all see or read a reality we all know , but too often, shy to make it public. Congratulations.


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