Debunking 'compassion fatigue'

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Is there any truth to "compassion fatigue" - the vague notion that if people are overwhelmed by too many needy causes, they might stop giving? In the wake of the Indonesian tsunami or hurricane Katrina, nonprofit and service agency spokesmen worried that donors might be so strapped by charity to the flood victims that they would neglect their regular contributions. Sometimes called "scarcity thinking," this relies on the notion that there's a finite resource and if someone else gets it, that means you or I might not. Personally, I don't believe it.

William Arthur Ward wrote, "The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails." In my experience, when a disaster happens, we all adjust our sails. We dig a little deeper into our pockets, and we feel a little more thankful for our everyday advantages. In fact, I think we like adjusting our sails - because it makes us feel like we're really sailing hard; we're feeling the wind and living life to the fullest.

After a Thanksgiving meal, when you feel stuffed to the gills, do you stop eating altogether? Or do you pace yourself more realistically, starting with that first turkey sandwich? After the big game, when you've given it your all, do you sit on the bench for the next few competitions? After shoveling out from a big snowstorm, do you skip the next few snows? The really big challenges - whether meals, or athletic events, or jobs - show us what we can do in a pinch. Talk to people who lived through World War II, and you'll detect pride in having endured privations, laughter at their make-do inventiveness, plus a nostalgia for the emotional intensity of the time. Was it a hard time? Yes, but people pulled together and found new solutions.

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Fatigue comes not because compassion gives out, but because change is not forthcoming. Citizens will put their shoulders to the wheel that is accomplishing something, but not one that is stuck in the mud. Our compassion for dishonesty in politics is severely fatigued, right now, but our compassion for democracy is not. Nonprofits that mismanage funds, duplicate efforts, or fail to effect change will tire even the most generous donors. If there is a decline in their donations after a disaster, it's because that's when the scrutiny comes. Service agencies that get wound up in red tape and aren't serving their constituents also fatigue donors, which is why many givers favor smaller, local nonprofits rather than big multinational ones.

Small towns or tight ethnic communities within a big city may see a stronger sense of community than larger ones. Grange halls and church suppers testify to the bonds of small groups that come to the aid of someone who gets sick or whose house burns down. There's a reason that "It takes a village to raise a child," not "it takes a city...," because we are most moved by those within close boundaries. When we give to the tsunami victims on the other side of the world, it is because we have realized, however briefly, that we live on the same planet and that this sudden, violent natural disaster might just as easily have happened to us. That's compassion - and it doesn't fatigue us; it expands our propensity for generosity and helps us to feel the wind in our hair.

Martha White is a freelance writer and editor.

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