We begin with the book by Fran Hawthorne entitled, The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting, and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism. She starts out with some humor shtick that sounds a whole lot like Jeff Foxworthy:
You might be an overloaded liberal if … you hide the snack you brought to the playground for your five-year-old—even though it’s healthful and nonsugary—because, oh my God, you forgot you were supposed to boycott that food company.
You might be an overloaded liberal if … you drive five miles out of your way and pay 30 percent more to buy a screwdriver at the little independent hardware store, just to avoid shopping at Wal-Mart.
You might be an overloaded liberal if … you try to calculate your carbon emissions in driving that extra five miles, versus the carbon footprint you would cause by turning on your computer to order the same screwdriver online.
You might be an overloaded liberal if … you stand in line for ten minutes debating whether to buy imported organic blueberries or nonorganic blueberries that are local.
That’s Fran Hawthorne, putting her finger on what it’s like to be a “lifestyle activist,” or someone who is trying to make the world a better place through more thoughtful lifestyle choices, choices about how they spend their money.
This is a good thing. May all of us strive to do this.
But it can indeed lead to overwhelm. No act is 100% pure. There are always trade-offs. Maybe the best we can do is do the least harm, but at times the action that does the least harm can be hard to confidently discern.
There must be a point when we pray:
May I show up.
May I pay attention.
May I do what I can.
And then, may I let go.
There has got to be a point when this prayer enters into our hearts and minds and it softens our bodies, it sends us into other parts of our lives where we aren’t trying to fight the good fight but, instead, we are enjoying the parts of life that can be enjoyed: a good cup of coffee, a walk in the park, a dinner party with friends, puttering around in the garden, laughter.
There has got to be a point. Otherwise, we risk experiencing “compassion fatigue.” Compassion fatigue: being emotionally overwhelmed to the point of paralysis and numbness. Compassion fatigue: believing that what you do—what others do—makes not one bit of difference.
Originally, compassion fatigue was something observed in health care professionals. These professionals could be at the front lines of trauma (like a police officer, a paramedic, or an emergency room nurse), or they could witness people’s traumas at second hand (as, for example, a minister listening to a parishioner talk about being traumatized in some way). People in such professions are placed, again and again, in the way of emotionally overwhelming scenes of suffering, and (as was also observed) if the professional was not careful to take time away for self-renewal and self-care, they would inevitably find themselves anxious, depressed, disturbed, irritable, exhausted, and essentially compromised in their ability to do their job.
And it could get worse.
Compassion fatigue, it was also found, damages the caregiver’s basic world view. It’s not just about emotional numbness or not being able to feel feelings of caring anymore. It’s about losing hope. It’s about starting to believe sincerely that what good you are doing—the good that others are doing—makes not one bit of difference.
Dr. Chavi Karkowsky, a medical doctor in New York City, speaks to this in a recent article of The Atlantic. She says that the time before the COVID-19 vaccine was available was bad enough, for medical professionals working away at the front lines. But the resulting level of compassion fatigue only worsened once vaccines became available because doctors like her witnessed the incredible: that there were and are so many vaccine refusers whose refusal risks the lives of the many around them as well as their own lives. This, says Dr. Karkowsky, has led to no less than a shattering of health professionals’ basic faith in humanity—faith that people can come together to solve problems.
That’s how bad compassion fatigue can get.
Another medical doctor, Rachel Naomi Remen, says it so well: “The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water and not get wet.”
Our world is a world full of brokenness which needs so much caring! But when caregivers show up, pay attention, and do what they can without there also being times of letting go and stepping back, the tragic consequence is only more brokenness and only more suffering.
Our prayer must be:
May I show up.
May I pay attention.
May I do what I can.
And then, may I let go.
Now, so far I have explored compassion fatigue in its original sense of pertaining to the healthcare professions. But how many of you are not in an official caring profession and yet you can honestly say, I have experienced compassion fatigue in the past or I have compassion fatigue right now?
Yes! Compassion fatigue is its own kind of pandemic…..
Elisa Gabbert, writer for The Guardian newspaper, helps articulate one big reason why there are so many folks beyond healthcare professionals who are feeling compassion fatigue too. “If it is true,” she says, “that empathy is a necessary motivator for making the world a better place, what happens when we feel bombarded every day with the details of local and global disasters, with every shocking crime, political scandal and climate calamity here and abroad? […] If caregivers are at risk because they give care to the traumatised, then empathetic news consumers are at risk because they consume the news. Just opening Twitter on your phone, or looking at the TV in a bar, exposes you to enormous problems you can’t possibly solve. Perhaps you can help, but the difference that an individual contribution makes – placing a call, voting, going to a protest – often feels imperceptible.”
It was Mother Theresa who once said, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” But our world today makes it so hard to look at just the one. Tragedies around the world are instantly broadcast onto our smart phones or into our living rooms. Graphic images of horrible suffering nearby and far away are piled on to whatever suffering we might be dealing with at home.
There is in particular the global tragedy of climate change, and a rate of species extinction that boggles the mind. Fran Hawthorne’s jokes which we heard a moment ago–that “you might be an overloaded liberal if…”—are but the top layer of a deeper despair about the immensity of what is happening to our shared earth. So of course our small attempts at lifestyle activism can soon feel overwhelming.
In the face of so much horror, how do we preserve compassion—and prevent becoming numb?
We must also ask, in the face of such an onslaught, how we might retain genuine feistiness and joy in our activism. “If I can’t dance,” said the unforgettable Emma Goldman, “I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.”
So: May I show up.
May I pay attention.
May I do what I can.
And then, may I let go.
But: what if we can’t let go.
What if we’re reading an online article that presents a 10-point checklist for how to step back and let go and it all sounds so good but We. Just. Can’t. Go. There?
What if the minister tells us that it’s so vital we step back and let go at times and one part of us agrees but another part–a part that’s stronger–just can’t agree?
So let’s go deeper. Start with the situation of making yourself endlessly available to the 24/7 news cycle. Every email you get sent: you feel you must read. The news app on your smart phone: you check in hourly. Your favorite news channel on TV: you never miss it. And so on and so on, ad infinitum.
Honestly, when I catch myself doing this, I wonder if I do it because I think that this is itself a form of actually accomplishing something. That being virtually plugged in becomes a way of creating actual positive change.
Well, the more I think about this, the more I see that I may be fooling myself. Making myself endlessly available to the news only creates the illusion that I am doing something. Meanwhile, there are things I actually could be accomplishing right in my backyard—like canvassing in Old Brooklyn so that I might help influence how folks vote on the issue of community oversight of policing in Cleveland. And, since I am so stressed out by all the bad news, I have no energy left anyhow to give to the canvassing effort.
I, and maybe you, need to see through this illusion. I, and maybe you, need to remember those powerful words of Mother Theresa and say them to ourselves like a mantra: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
So what can your one thing be? Your one, concrete action–your one way of “getting proximate”–with results that in no way will be illusory?
What can your one thing be?
But now, like a kaleidoscope, turn the dial and see the issue of not being able to step back and not being able to let go from a different perspective. This time we aren’t talking about the endless news cycle. This time, we are talking about the stream of invitations that come to you to do something, and you just can’t say no.
Well, why is that?
For some people, it is a feeling of meaninglessness in one’s life, which is intolerable. We are fundamentally spiritual beings having a human experience, and so, to feel meaninglessness is the worst. This, in turn, makes a person extremely vulnerable to being recruited to some kind of war—whether it is of the physical type and fought with bombs and bullets, or of the ideological type and fought with rallies and symbols and activism of various kinds.
I spoke to this issue of war (at least in the physical sense) in my previous sermon entitled “Understanding War.” In it, I said “War, and the warlike mentality, is addictive. It is a spiritual addiction. And this is something that political leaders knowingly manipulate. The Nazi general Hermann Goering at his trial in Nuremburg was chillingly plain about this. He said, ‘The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.’” And then I concluded: “Create an enemy, create an urgency, insist that patriotism means unconditional obedience to what the authorities say, and all of a sudden: spirits that were aimless and scattered are now given direction and value. Now they become sharp and dangerous instruments for leaders to use.”
If you feel that you can’t ever step back and can’t ever let go, I am gently asking you: have you become a moral soldier? Have you started to see our world as a scene of warfare, and you are on the side of absolute right, and the others you fight against are on the side of absolute wrong? In a time of warfare, taking time to smell the roses is of course the height of irresponsibility, and simply detestable. Same thing, I would add, for taking time for thoughtfulness and for individuality. If we are moral soldiers, under wartime conditions (whether physical or ideological) we are obligated to follow the orders of our superiors without question and to never say no.
Our spiritual tradition of Unitarian Universalism does not teach this kind of vision of life. In pursuit of our Seven Principles, and perhaps an Eighth, Unitarian Universalism does not ask us to take on what is actually an ancient view of the world, the Zoroastrian view, which divides the world into Children of Light and Children of Darkness. Instead, Unitarian Universalism says that as we work together to heal the brokenness of the world, we must acknowledge ambiguity and complexity; we must honor the organic mystery of how things come to be which so often defies our linear ideas; we must admit that our best laid plans to solve problems can often create problems that are even worse; we must marvel at how the people who seem to be our worst enemies can be closer to us in spirit than we ever could have imagined.
This complexity is evident in a famous statement that Dr. King himself echoed in his great sermon “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” but it originally came from the 19th century Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker. Here it is, the original words: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
That is not the statement of a moral soldier carrying out infallible orders. That is the statement of one who shows up, pays attention, does what they can, and then lets go because they know that no set of orders can “calculate” the moral arc’s “curve” which outruns anyone’s capacity to see. They hope for a better world; they play their part; and they respect the ultimate mystery of the outcome.
As a side note, let me say that as we anticipate a full turn out on behalf of SURJ’s canvassing efforts in the Old Brooklyn area, let each of us see this as an opportunity for peacemaking. Warfare is when people with differences aren’t talking, aren’t relating to each other as beings with humanity in common. But we’ll be doing the opposite of that. In fact, we’ll be doing something similar to what has been called “deep canvassing,” which has been proven to be effective in diverting people away from prejudice and becoming more open and more compassionate. Essentially, in deep canvassing, if you meet someone whose views you find prejudicial or uncaring, you don’t call them out. You don’t slap at them with your fury. Instead, you do something more radical: You listen nonjudgmentally to their story, and begin a conversation.
This is peacemaking.
So I am praying this prayer today:
May we show up.
May we pay attention.
May we do what we can.
And then, may we let go.
Because what is at stake is sustaining compassion in a world that needs compassion and responds to compassion. In warfare—physical or ideological–there is no compassion at all.
But there are still other reasons why a person might not be able to step back and let go. It could be because anger has you in its grip. It could be because guilt has you in its grip. I get it. Yet anger and guilt are not healthy strategies for activism, because when you look through those lenses, you can’t see straight. You can’t act effectively. Anger as a main strategy can be bull-in-a-china-shop destructive. Guilt as a main strategy can make a person paternalistic in ways that are insulting to the folks we’re trying to “help.”
As Dr. King once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.”
So we must ask enlightening questions about what is behind the anger, behind the guilt. Perhaps what is behind it is grief and loss. Perhaps what is behind it is trauma. Such things need loving. Such things need healing.
Don’t get me wrong: anger and guilt are valuable. But not when they are squeezing the life out of us and causing us to compulsively act (in unhelpful ways, I might add) until we are burned out to a crisp.
Stepping back and letting go may require the deepest of deep work which is self-understanding and healing.
But it saves us in the end. It saves our compassion. One becomes able to say, sometimes, to all the invitations to get involved, Not this time, maybe later. One becomes able to turn off the TV, turn away from the 24/7 news cycle with all its tragedies and disasters, for a time, and that’s ok.
We do this because we need to do this, for the sake of preserving compassion and a worldview that affirms that what people do—however small the actions may be—counts.
And maybe, just maybe, the joyful dancing that Emma Goldman so wanted her revolution to include, can be possible.
Possible, in your revolution, and in mine.