On Compassion and Fighting Fatigue

by Tara Livesay on March 10, 2014

A young woman laid on the bed writhing and crying out in unbearable pain.

She had been coming to classes at our Maternity Center for many months. She had been given sufficient time to know us, but had never really come to trust us.

Her baby had been born. She had spent some time recovering and being encouraged as she began this new important role, being a mother. She was doing well, or as well as a 17-year-old mother with little emotional support at home can do. We drove her to her home – made of tin and tarps and plywood – once she felt ready to go.

On the day she returned to us, a little more than a week later, her thighs were covered in burns. A common practice after giving birth in Haiti had not turned out so well for her.  Boiling hot water had scalded her legs and rear end.  “My aunt forced me to do it”, she shared.

As the deep burn was being debrided she cried and begged and wondered aloud why her mother had left her to be cared for by an aunt.  It was a heartbreaking moment.  The heartbreak was compounded knowing that this young girl had lost much in her life, knowing that there was little anyone could do to protect her from her powerful aunt, knowing that sometimes all the classes and teaching and encouragement do not prove to be effective or bring about change.

Those of us working among the poor are often obligated to tell our success stories.  Those stories are the ones that encourage donors to give.  The truth is, most of us find that the success stories are much harder to come by.

We see things we have tried to help prevent happen in spite of the trying and teaching. We see failure. We see it often.  We see pain. We see sorrow.We experience those things with the people we work with, care about, and love. We don’t celebrate “success” as often as we would like.

A quick search of the words “compassion fatigue” turned up dozens of articles on the topic.  It turns out that being with a person that is going through something traumatic also causes trauma to those that are attempting to help.  It can get tricky. Too many burned thighs and crying girls and a person can become cold to the pain of another. Too much “failure” and a person becomes cynical or hopeless or both.

This is something I think of often.  How can we keep ourselves from burning out?  How can we keep from becoming either too hurt by or too indifferent to the pain of those we walk with in our day-to-day work?

As I have considered this I have often thought that if the day comes where the suffering of another does not affect me, that might be my sign that it is time to take a break or leave completely.

Many years ago Sara Groves wrote a song entitled “The Long Defeat”.  In that song she expresses beautifully some of the things we think and feel and do in order to deal with fatigue (whether it be true “compassion fatigue” or just plain old boring and regular fatigue).

I have joined the long defeat
That falling set in motion
And all my strength and energy
Are raindrops in the ocean

So conditioned for the win
To share in victor’s stories
But in the place of ambition’s din
I have heard of other glories

And i pray for an idea
And a way i cannot see
It’s too heavy to carry
And impossible to leave

I can’t just fight when i think i’ll win
That’s the end of all belief
And nothing has provoked it more
Than a possible defeat


We walk a while we sit and rest
We lay it on the altar
I won’t pretend to know what’s next
But what i have i’ve offered

And i pray for a vision
And a way i cannot see
It’s too heavy to carry
And impossible to leave

And i pray for inspiration
And a way i cannot see
It’s too heavy to carry
And impossible to leave
It’s too heavy to carry
And i will never leave

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What about you?

Do you struggle when something you have taught or shared or done fails?

How do you protect yourself from the pain or anger that comes from those disappointments? 

Tara Livesay works and lives in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
blog: livesayhaiti.com | twitter (sharing with her better half): @troylivesay

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About Tara Livesay

Tara and her family have lived in Haiti since 2006. She resides in Port au Prince, where she serves as a CPM (Midwife) with Heartline Ministries working in the areas of Maternal and Newborn Health. Tara is a the wife of Troy, the mother of seven children ranging in age from 25 to 7 years old. Tara enjoys running, laughing, sarcasm and spending time with her family. Troy and Tara consider Haiti, Minnesota, and Texas "home".
  • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

    Oh boy, Tara. Good, hard questions here. I’ve been thinking about this exact thing this week. So hard to see people I love suffer. I do feel like my heart grows cold sometimes, taking it ‘all in stride,’ trying not to cry. And then something snaps and I wonder, now why on earth am I crying so hard about this one light thing? Until I realize it is all of it, coming out through that one light thing. I said to my husband, regarding the pain of some of the girls on our running team, “If I didn’t believe in the power of prayer and that God is good, despite what I see, I would go crazy.” Maybe that is my answer to what helps when I struggle – a deep conviction that God is good, no matter if I can explain it or not.

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      Prayer and time to recharge are both part of my answer to these questions. Seeing the unseen, or asking for that, is key I think.

  • Dr. Kris

    As a family practice doc who lived for 9 years on LaGonave [and now over 6 in northern Haiti] I don’t know that I ever really found a total balance. I did learn to walk away from non-emergencies, leaving more work for the Haitian nurses on the days I just couldn’t handle anymore and take personal time at the Lord’s feet. Begging Him to help me not become hard, not to hurt myself, family or those I can to partner with here. I needed to be honest with myself and shed a ‘super person’ mask that sometimes I found myself wearing and lean on others. I needed to listen carefully for HIS still, quiet voice above all, those yelling for my attention. And often when on the edge of quitting in despair He would give us a miracle save [snatched from the jaws of death] to remind us He can do all things and remains in charge and give us a reason to celebrate. Courage!

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      Amen, Kris!

  • Marilyn Gardner

    So good Tara. The weariness that sets in, the despair of “no matter what I do it’s a drop in this bucket”, the tiredness, the anger. I think of Rachel’s post Beyond Culture Shock: Culture Pain, Culture Stripping. This to be sure is culture pain. I think of so many doctors and nurses I knew growing up in Pakistan and their tears over women who could have been helped had their husbands given permission. I love what Rachel says below – if I too didn’t know at the deepest level that God is good, than it would be all over. It just wouldn’t be worth it. I’ve a lot of respect for humanitarian aid workers who are not believers, tireless in their continuing to work in the worst situations. I read an article today that Syrian kids are being knocked out during surgery because there is no anesthetic and they would not be able to cope with the pain. I don’t think I could do this without my faith. Thanks for addressing this — no easy answers, but a faithful God.

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      Thanks Marilyn – so want to be faithful and never lose compassion – I see now how this happens and want to be on guard. My faithful God needs to be my first stop when I’m weary and before then especially.

  • Yes, I’ve struggled with this. Thanks for this article, and giving voice to the tension that often exists when ministry is anything but “glorious.”
    I’ve been thinking about this recently, about how Jesus perfectly balanced inside ministry (solitary prayer and worship) with outside ministry (teaching and serving people). His time alone with the Father drove him to love people in tangible ways, and his time with people drove him back to the quiet place with the Father. For Jesus, these activities were two halves of the same wheel, upon which the Gospel advanced.

    In my own life, I must continually seek that balance or I’ll crash and burn. Thanks again for the reminder.

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      Truth! The balance is a struggle and I know I don’t spend enough quiet time with God.

      • Hey, Tara, I hope I didn’t come off sounding like I think you don’t spend enough quiet time with God. Shoot, if so, I’m sorry. That’s really not what I meant at all. What I meant was that in my own life, when I don’t spend enough time alone with the Father, I start to really struggle. It was the same when I worked as a trauma nurse in the States, and my desperate need for time alone with God was just as palpable there as it is here. You know, come to think of it, we had quite a support system in place at that ER. If there was a particularly bad trauma, the chaplain and maybe the social worker would go around to the staff, following up, making sure folks were processing and grieving well. I wonder how often that sort of model is utilized in member care for folks serving overseas…

        • Tara Porter-Livesay

          Oh~ No – I was confessing – nothing that you inferred at all! I just don’t spend sufficient time in the quiet place of prayer and meditation – I hope to get that adjusted soon!

  • Angela Biggs

    The Long Defeat is one of three songs I use to help me through the struggles of my personal calling. The other two are Like a Lake and He’s Always Been Faithful, all by Sara Groves, in that order. The Long Defeat is a particularly powerful song; although, I always hear the first line as, “I have joy in the long defeat.”

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      She is a wonderful writer, many of her songs speak to my soul too! There is joy in the long defeat 🙂 Hard to find some days – but it is there.

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