On Compassion and Fighting Fatigue

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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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 - Maternity Center working in the area orphan prevention, Maternal and Newborn Health. Tara is a the wife of Troy, the mother of seven children ranging in age from 27 to 9 years old and has recently become a grandmother to 3 grandsons. Tara enjoys friends, laughing, sarcasm and spending time with her family.

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