Compassion Fatigue & Selfish Women
I’ve been avoiding the news cycle like it was my day job since 2016.
That’s when the unthinkable happened – or what we thought was unthinkable at that point in history. (Buckle the fuck up, kids.) Trump took office. I didn’t sleep the night of the election at all. I just lay in my bed, staring up at the ceiling, not blinking, in shock.
The next day at work, there seemed to be an office-wide consensus – America had shit the bed last night. Even the Conservative voters agreed on this. It was fascinating, but it was also horrifying. Maybe it won’t be so bad, we said, but then the media circus started. The news anchors were not okay. Anderson Cooper had the constant look of a man who had witnessed too much and was now dead on the inside.
I took a sick kind of glee in the new heights my disgust and vitriol reached each day. But that, as it turns out, was unsustainable.
As a person with a ramped-up emotions, and as a person with biological sensitivity to emotions, and as a person who can’t regulate her emotions, and as a person with a smaller-than-average amygdala, and as a person who absorbs more emotional information than the general populace and therefore chooses to disengage just so I can – I don’t know – live without collapsing, “empath” is a good a word as any. There are a lot of times when I can’t tell the difference between other peoples’ emotions and my own. I automatically dissociate even during pleasant, laidback events – just so that I can be participate and be present. If I seem spaced out, uninterested, or bored – or like I just don’t give a shit – sometimes it’s because I actually don’t give a shit. But more likely, it’s because I’m having to filter out way more than mostly everyone else.
So four months into 2016, I started religiously avoiding the news cycle, a practice I took up with renewed vigor in the year of our Lord 2020. The pandemic news cycle was engrossing and, it seemed at the time, vital (in a weird way) but it was costing me too much. I couldn’t function as a regular adult human and also read the news. I knew my limits. I stopped reading pandemic news and googling case numbers. If you asked me what the case numbers were, I would have shrugged and left the room. Please don’t speak about this to me, I would think silently at every person I interacted with. Just. Please. Can a bitch PLEASE have a break.
I drifted. I would tune in and out to the present-day reality at odd times. My life took on a very surreal and disconnected quality. I didn’t want to talk about it. I started writing fan fiction, but in a derisive and sarcastic sort of way. I smoked pot at night and listened to Radiohead in the bathtub.
The only news I consumed was celebrity news, a pathological form of escapism that has since become a part of my very soul – much like a horcrux. Hence my unsettling obsession with Netflix’s reality tv shows and completely obnoxious habit of frequently googling the Kardashians. (I don’t care. I love them, much in the same way a scientist loves his weird little lab experiments.)
I didn’t even know anything that was happening in the Ukraine until the day that Russia invaded it.
We can bear witness. And many of us do. But for the same reason that I haven’t been able to engage with the news cycle since 2016, I am utterly incapable of even bearing witness to gamut of pain and suffering vomited into my news feed every morning. It’s weak, I tell myself, and it’s selfish. All I have to do is not look away. That’s it. That’s the whole project. Just don’t look away.
But I do look away. I can’t help myself. I’m not neurotypical enough, and I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
What am I, as a Christian, supposed to do with the problem of pain? Do I have a responsibility here?
There’s a weird guilt-morality that’s sort of paraded around in Christian circles. Jesus made himself nothing, Jesus poured himself out, Jesus was a living sacrifice, Jesus always had time for the sick and the poor, why can’t you be more like JESUS.
It’s like the less boundaries we have, the holier we are.
I’m not the only one who’s noticed. In recent years, a Christian mommy blogger by the name of Glennon Doyle found out her husband was cheating on her, reconciled with him, wrote a book about the whole experience called Love Warrior, then while on tour promoting that book, fell in love with a woman – famous soccer star Abby Wambach – and left her husband for Abby. Years later, she wrote another book called Untamed - a book that, by and large, encourages women to launch ballistic missiles at the proverbial glass ceiling. Or to just leave the building altogether and go, “You know what? This entire structure is bullshit and I want a new architect.”
Half of the Christian women demographic will follow this woman over a cliff. She is their champion. She is their battle general. The women are rioting at dawn. It’s not illegal and the police can’t stop them.
The other half of the Christian women demographic is just absolutely shitting themselves over Glennon’s audacity and her call to swipe left on Christianity’s weird obsession with selfless women. In Glennon’s words, what we have here is an entire generation of women who have lost their sense of self. (Alas and forsooth, Shitty Theology ruins the party again.)
Now, don’t get me wrong – Glennon can be a little too precious about herself sometimes (ARE THERE ANY OTHER ENNEAGRAM FOURS IN THE BUILDING). I always say she’s the Oprah for millennials. That being said, one of the consistent truths she speaks is the truth about how, as women, and especially as women in the church, we are encouraged to not be in touch with ourselves. To never say no to our children. To not listen to our bodies. To not be needy. To always say yes, to always help, to always be the good soldier, to always have our arms open. To give and give and give until we are bled dry. To not complain if we didn’t get that orgasm first (or at all.)
Which connects back to the news cycle and compassion fatigue.
If we say no to reading the news, if we look away, if we occasionally shield ourselves from the constant onslaught of information and online vitriol, if we sometimes don’t pick up that midnight call, that does not point to a moral deficiency. We are not being bad Christians. We are not called to be 24/7 on-call compassion dispensers. We’re not just vessels for the children’s needs. Take a word from the childless, wizened old crone : The children are going to be fine. They’re free-range now. Let them get their own damn snacks.
We are not endless receptacles for the world’s pain and trauma. We are not endless receptacles for the complaints of men and infants. We are not going to be your free-of-cost emotional labour workforce. Not anymore. Not today, Satan.
Compassion fatigue is our new spiritual discipline. Rest is our new spiritual director. Saying no without explaining ourselves is our holy mandate. I just got saved all over again and asked Jesus into my heart, and there’s no going back. Having flimsy boundaries and unnecessary guilt is an unnatural and blasphemous offense against my Lord, and I will go and sin no more.