[Photo Credit: Getty Images]
United States | Carlos Fayard, PhD, for Inter-American Division News

Addressing the Arithmetic of Compassion: pandemic fatigue, psychic numbing, and compassion fatigue

The World Health Organization (1) recommends key strategies that may be helpful to take into account as we, as a church, try to communicate with our own members and communities. For instance, pastors and other leaders may include some of this information in their sermons and webinars.

  1. Understand people: My inclination is to feel indignant towards those who are not wearing masks in public, for instance. Of course, it does not do any good to feel this way and in fact, you might have seen how this may lead to altercations. These people truly believe their conduct to be appropriate. If we are going to make any progress, we need to identify the barriers that impact the ability or willingness of people to engage in mitigating behaviors. For instance, a powerful driver of these behaviors where I live relates to unfounded beliefs about the virus as being “fake” and a way “to control” people. Now, with the vaccine, it is “a way to manipulate” your genetic code. Feeling contempt for the misinformation is not helpful. You may find a way to convey evidence-based information that may address these beliefs tactfully and directly.
  2. Engage people as part of the solution: Prioritize and highlight how many are conscious and follow protective behaviors instead of focusing primarily or exclusively on those who do not. By shifting the focus in this way, you may contribute to generating a feeling of self-efficacy. A sense that “what you do, makes a difference.”
  3. Acknowledge and address the hardship people experience: It is well documented that restrictions and intrusive measures from the pandemic have had a negative impact on the emotional health of many. Surveys indicate that a good portion of the population sees the loss of a job or income as being a higher and more immediate threat than the virus itself. “Under such circumstances, it is not a small request to ask for continued population support” (p. 19). If you are preaching, teaching, or doing a webinar consider the following:
    • Acknowledge the hardships that people face or fear, such as loneliness or loss of income. Empathy, hope, and understanding above punishment, shame, and blame are more likely to open minds and hearts.
    • Highlight ways in which people may retain as much of their lives while taking into account the epidemiological risk.
    • Create opportunities for people to feel connected, and if possible, productive. One of the churches I follow on Facebook has a most creative array of streaming services, from children, worship events, to prayer and regular church meetings. A Pastor who serves in a hard-hit area told me a few days ago he is planning on holding “open conversation” meetings on a regular basis to facilitate constructive connections.
    • Avoid an economy-versus-health dichotomy.
  4. A harm-reduction approach: This is a term psychologists utilize to acknowledge that negative behaviors may not be stopped completely, but that reducing harm is more feasible. Presenting people with an “all or nothing” approach clearly backfires. Early in the pandemic, we went for rides in the mountains around our area. The state of California had decided to close all parks and recreation areas. The net result was that crowds of people congregated in areas ill-designed to welcome the numbers or activities. Highlighting what can be done safely, is bound to be more helpful than just continuing to repeat what we should not be doing, even if what is repeated are the protective behaviors.

Let us now turn to what you may consider as an individual to address some of the concerns stemming from pandemic fatigue. Dr. Slovic recommends the following:

  1. Become aware of psychic numbing/pandemic fatigue/compassion fatigue in yourself: You may decrease the impact of psychic numbing by becoming aware of how you respond when you hear a statistic or are shown images related to the pandemic on TV. If you feel that makes you a little numb, you may want to imagine how it is to be in the shoes of one person represented in the statistic or picture. The person has a name, a family, and a history.
  2. Raise awareness in others: You may use your social media to discuss psychic numbing/pandemic fatigue/compassion fatigue highlighting the ideas and strategies discussed above. You want to increase empathy instead of simply venting frustration. Re-posting this article or portions of it might be helpful.
  3. Harness the power of a testimony: The Pastor that plans on holding open conversation times for his community is also planning on including the personal testimony of those that have faced the various aspects of dealing with COVID-19; both survivors of the disease, as well as survivors of those who lost loved ones to the virus. Personal stories can be very powerful. My wife and I are planning on doing a short video in Spanish to share. She is a Professor of Pediatrics at Loma Linda University School of Medicine and just got her second vaccine shot. Explaining the mechanisms of the virus, and even more importantly how the vaccine works may help some. This leads to their final recommendation.
  4. Appreciate that even partial solutions save whole lives: The message is clear. Helping one person at a time helps to save many if not all.

A Christian Response

It is interesting to note that when faced with large numbers of people in need, the response of Jesus was the opposite of psychic numbing. The gospel of Mathew (9:35, 36) describes that “Jesus went through all the towns and villages. He taught in their synagogues. He preached the good news of the kingdom. And he healed every illness and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he felt deep compassion for them. They were treated badly and were helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Jesus was not invaded by a false sense of inefficacy given the numbers and the size of the needs. The gospel of Matthew (18: 10-13) quotes Christ’s words directly, “See that you don’t look down on one of these little ones. Here is what I tell you. Their angels in heaven are always with my Father who is in heaven. “What do you think? Suppose a man owns 100 sheep and one of them wanders away. Won’t he leave the 99 sheep on the hills? Won’t he go and look for the one that wandered off? What I’m about to tell you is true. If he finds that sheep, he is happier about the one than about the 99 that didn’t wander off.”

Christ was not under the impact of the prominence effect. On the contrary, the gospel of Matthew (20: 28) states that “He came to give his life as the price for setting many people free.”

As a Christian, I am sure that on your best days, you want to be like Jesus. Being like Jesus goes beyond the question “what would Jesus do?” Being like Jesus means that your behavior is motivated by compassion. The secular world recognizes the importance of motivation under our global crisis. As a follower of Jesus, the compassion that is being moved to action when we see suffering is a fruit of the presence of the Spirit in your life. You too may find the motivation to deal with pandemic fatigue in your life and in that of those around you and respond keeping in mind some of the ideas shared above.

If you are Christian, like the rest of us, you know that you are only human and far from perfect. At times, you too may feel “helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” If so, bring to mind the words of Psalm 23 (with my observation in parenthesis):

1 The Lord is my shepherd (A shepherd is there to protect. The shepherd may not physically hold the sheep, but is alert to any threats and remains attentive to the needs of the flock). He gives me everything I need (and not necessarily all I want).

2 He lets me lie down in fields of green grass.

He leads me beside quiet waters.

3He gives me new strength.

He guides me in the right paths

for the honor of his name (He walks with you when all is well, but this is when we tend to be more forgetful).

4Even though I walk

through the darkest valley,

I will not be afraid.

You are with me.

Your shepherd’s rod and staff

comfort me (Yes, He is with you even when feel you are in the darkest moments of your life).

5You prepare a feast for me

right in front of my enemies (He protects you but not always eliminates difficulties).

You pour oil on my head.

My cup runs over (Think and remember the times when you felt His blessing in your life).

6I am sure that your goodness and love will follow me

all the days of my life.

And I will live in the house of the Lord

forever (We have this hope! The Pandemic is not the end of this planet’s history or the end of your personal history).

May you be blessed and invigorated, welcoming the Spirit to produce a fruit of compassion through these trying times.

This article was originally published on the Inter-America Division’s website