THE compassion business is changing. Time was that footage of children with flies in the eyes was enough to get the heart-strings well and truly tugged. But charity PR has moved on. We respond better now to stories of hope and empowerment, in which the victims of plague, famine, and natural disaster are no longer victims, but are given their own “agency”.
Even at the end of a fatiguing 45-minute discussion in The Documentary: Compassion Fatigue (World Service, Sunday), the cynicism of the “flies in the eyes” comment was abrasive. It recalled the “battered this, battered that” comment of Diana, Princess of Wales, in her notorious Panorama interview: a tell-tale moment in which is glimpsed the narcissism which is endemic to the human psyche, whether or not we are egregious humanitarians.
Through a series of interviews with medical practitioners and aid workers, all to be credited with acts of heroic selflessness and generosity, the programme explored a condition in which such people feel drained and hopeless, but at the same time revealed a crucial moral and spiritual deficiency in the concept of compassion.
A doctor with Médecins sans Frontières spoke of how soul-destroying it was to see “child after child” die. Another talked of how working in such situations diminished a person’s reserves of compassion: “It’s like drawing water from a well.” In perhaps the most revealing interview of all, a doctor recalled how, as a junior, she would compensate for a perceived lack of status in the hospital environment by “throwing round compassion” to her patients.
The condition of exhaustion brought on by extended physical and emotional involvement in a particular task is no doubt ubiquitous. But it would be interesting to know when the term “compassion fatigue” came into being to explain the phenomenon.
What the comments of participants in this documentary displayed was a self-conscious assessment of their own needs in comparison with the needs of those they were trying to help. The language of water and wells makes explicit the notion that compassion is a finite resource: it is an energy that obeys the laws of physics and biology. That the participants themselves understand the apparent selfishness of their attitude means only that guilt is added to the burden.
Yet at no point was the concept of “compassion” properly analysed, particularly in relation to “empathy” and “sympathy”. In much of the discussion, the terms seemed to be used interchangeably; with “compassion” favoured, perhaps because “sympathy” sounds too much like a Hallmark card.
But, if you take it in its truest sense, compassion is surely the last thing that you want from your doctor. It might help to see that your doctor sympathises with your predicament, but it helps not a jot that they suffer as you do. True compassion has a spiritual dimension that transcends the physical limits of mere fatigue.