How can there be fatigue in compassion and empathy?


VICTOR KANNAN challenges the widely-held notion that compassion fatigue is inevitable in a life of service, especially the noblest of professions like education and medicine. How does fatigue develop and how can we avoid it?

Why do we talk about the idea of fatigue in compassion and empathy in professional life? It seems to evince a pendulum swing from recognition to caution; recognition of the need for these qualities instead of just having the materialistic instincts of profits and productivity, to caution about sustaining compassion and empathy.

Compassion and empathy are natural qualities of a human being. They are positive for community building and improving relationships. Why then do we talk about the need to develop them and guard against fatigue?

In this materialistic world, even the noblest professions of education, healthcare and spirituality are being sold, contrary to traditional values, which say there should never be any charge for them. They are not supposed to be the means to riches but are offered to enrich fellow beings. Those who offer these noble services have always been well respected by the community at large and their needs taken care of.

But in the modern era, this whole consciousness is lost. As a result, now there is a movement to bring back empathy, compassion and emotional intelligence (EI) into commercial, professional and marketplace dynamics. While this is good, commercialization usually cannot be avoided, except in those non-profit organizations that are exceptions to the general rule.

While there is a growing recognition of the need for emotional intelligence and social intelligence in the business world, the counter-theorists are quick to caution against compassion and empathy fatigue, and a number of studies are being conducted in this field.

Fatigue is different from tiredness. Tiredness can be corrected by rest and is a natural process of energy flow. Taking care of people can be tiring, but fatigue is like stress, it is chronic. It shows imbalance and an inability to cope. How is it that some people can go on longer and others can’t? Whether it is stress or fatigue, it is a question of stamina and resilience. Caregivers also need tools to improve their capacity and acquire the skill of being compassionate and empathetic for long periods, for it is proven that care with compassion and empathy cures better, makes everyone happier, and costs less.

What we need is a new understanding of
how to give and receive; a compassionate culture of
giving and receiving to usher in
an era of total well-being.

So here is what comes to mind: while cautioning people against fatigue, what is unspoken is the lack of understanding of how to naturally offer compassion and empathy unconditionally. It is not just an attitudinal adjustment. I do believe Heartfulness can help in the development of these qualities.

In his talks and book on emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman narrates a story about a class of Divinity students at Princeton. They had to give a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan from The Bible, and neither those students preparing the sermon nor the control group showed any significant difference in their ability to notice and empathize with a homeless man who was positioned on the way to the Church.

So the first basic human act of noticing the man was not there, irrespective of the level of education and the preparation done for the sermon on the Good Samaritan. It is clearly not enough to know about empathy and compassion. What is critical in imbibing the qualities of empathy and compassion so that we can avoid fatigue?

As we begin to deliberately notice (observe), pay attention, and have positive intention, along with our meditation practices, these qualities develop naturally and a new habit is formed. Then fatigue will not occur. It will also not occur if there is a reward, and what is that reward? The reward is in the appreciation and gratitude felt by the patient or student or co-worker.

We also need to explore the cultural and social paradigms we live in. Our current paradigms have reduced most of our service professions to transactional relationships based on economics, whether it is in hospitals or hospitality. When we go to a restaurant, we pay for what we eat, but the waiter also expects a tip. This culture of tipping shows that what is provided to anyone is an exchange.

Our service professions require something more than a transactional value system. For highly paid medical professionals, it could be in the smile and joy of grateful patients. In the hospital industry, perhaps it is in the superior positive experience. In the hospitality industry it can be through tipping, which in some countries has become an expected part of job performance.

Everyone now knows that tips are part of the earnings of waiters, and hence most patrons tip generously. Unfortunately the owner of the business may pay the attendants less, knowing that they make money on tips. So, even this has now entered into economic calculations of businessmen.

Compassion and empathy are
natural qualities of a human being.
They are positive for community
building and improving relationships.

When these types of expectations are normal and ubiquitous, how do we engender a culture of sensitivity in the community, one where the beneficiaries are generous in expressing their gratitude as much as the givers are generous in their caregiving or mentoring? Perhaps it has become necessary to educate the entire community of givers and receivers in how to express compassion and empathy. What we need is a new understanding of how to give and receive; a compassionate culture of giving and receiving to usher in an era of total wellbeing. We are all receivers and givers. When we recognize this, perhaps we will avoid fatigue altogether.

Heartfulness allows us to uncover the qualities of compassion and empathy so that they express in the most natural way. Then we avoid fatigue. We can then experience a more meaningful way of giving and being.




Victor Kannan

About Victor Kannan

Victor is a Director for Heartfulness Institute, USA, a non-profit organization educating, researching and spreading the values of yoga, meditation and overall wellness. He has been an avid practitioner of Heartfulness Meditation and a trainer for more than 30 years. As a career CFO he has been able to combine the benefits of meditation in the everyday management of his duties and responsibilities. He lives with his wife in Atlanta and has a daughter.

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