Beyond Compassion Fatigue

There’s a lot going on.  Sometimes we want to pull the covers over our head and stay in bed.  The news feed on our phone and TV brings a daily litany of rage and woe.

Yesterday an earthquake, the second in two weeks hit Mexico, with 242 dead and counting.  Today Hurricane Maria with record winds is ravaging Puerto Rico and soon to hit surrounding islands, already laid waste by last weeks Hurricane Irma. Its been only a few weeks since Hurricane Harvey visited the Gulf Coast and flooded the city of Houston.

What to do?

Some of us stop watching the news.  It’s just too much to absorb.

Others write checks, offer prayers and even grab supplies and head down to help as best we can. It’s cathartic to do something.

There is however a deeper opportunity at hand.  A spiritual opportunity.  An invitation to remain open to the stories of those in harm’s way.

To see oneself in the face of the mom striving to provide for her children.  To identify with the dad who grieves the loss of a home.  To hear the exhaustion in the voice of a first responder.

Taking time to be present to the stories we read and the voices we hear can touch us at a deep level.  As we remain open,  rather than deplete us, each person’s story can serve to both humble us and inspire.

 

What I’m saying is that between avoidance and action is a third way.  A way of becoming more human.   To see the humanity in the face of a Syrian refugee, to wonder at the tenacity of a Houstonian swamping out their house, to relate to the fear of a child who worries what tomorrow will bring.  To see oneself in each of their lives.

Such openness is a spiritual practice.  A way of becoming more fully human, more alive and ultimately more connected and committed to the well-being of others.

Opening ones story to the story of others is an invitation to transformation. No longer is there a them and us….there is simply an us.

My faith tradition calls this communion, deep communion.  The belief that as we relate more deeply to others we find our true self and are met by the God of many names. The One who is the ground of all being.

 

The Gift of Robin Williams

We mourn the passing of Robin Williams at age 63. He was an extraordinary person who touched the lives of millions as a comedian and actor. Initial reports suggest that he took his own life. A spokesperson for the family say that he wrestled for much of his life with depression and addiction.

His comedic genius served as a backdrop to my generation and touched the life of my children’s generation through endearing performances such as the Genie in the Disney animated film, ‘Aladdin’.

Robin Williams Photo

As an actor he won an academy award for his role as a grieving, empathetic therapist in ‘Goodwill Hunting’. In the film ‘Dead Poets Society’ he portrayed a beloved teacher who drew from his own reservoir of pain and spoke to the deepest longings of his students.

Robin Williams portrayal of these two fragile characters rings true because we sense that he brought his own vulnerability to the role. His experience resonated with our own sense of vulnerability and struggle.

As a comedian he had us rolling on the floor in laughter, even as we sensed that his comedic gift came from a fragile place. This connection between darkness and laughter wasn’t unique to Williams. His death feels so personal because his authenticity as a human being touched us deeply.

Robin didn’t hide his struggles but put them out for all to see. My hope is that his example will encourage and challenge each of us to be honest about who we are. One truth I’ve learned in 30 plus years of being a pastor is that no one has their act completely together, certainly not me.

We all have our areas of light and shadow, hope and despair. This mixed bag is what it means to be human. That Robin’s despair ultimately took his life should not discourage us from being open about our own vulnerability and struggles as well as our hopes and dreams.

His example challenges us to respond to the seemingly polite question: ‘How are you today?’, with an honest answer: ‘I feel good, happy’. Or, ‘I feel alone/anxious/sad/hopeless/angry’. The truth is most of us feel a mix of emotions every day.

In choosing to be emotionally authentic with each other, we have a responsibility to listen and be compassionate and caring. To let each other know that we have each other’s back. This is what it means to be part of a healthy community.

This is a bittersweet time. We are full of grief at the passing of an immensely talented, flawed and courageous human being. And, we are full of gratitude for the joy and depth of humanity that Robin Williams brought to us all. May God’s comfort be with his family and all who grieve his passing. To the Creator’s love we return his expansive soul.