It seems as though a “Law of the Vineyard” is that there is always someone (usually many someones) whose challenges and sufferings appear far greater than your own. It probably isn’t possible to truly compare any two lives in this way, but we are all familiar with the experience of observing or encountering people who suffer in ways we cannot begin to imagine.
I’ve particularly observed this somewhat recently with friends who care for loved ones with severe and debilitating injuries, disease, and especially disabilities. Some days they just don’t have it, they say. Some days there is little compassion, no patience, a desire to move past the challenge and not have to deal with it anymore. Any stored up resilience to the physical exhaustion that claims their lives every day, or inspiration from others who regularly comfort them and cheer them on are simply not always sufficient. Some days death is much more preferable.
I have my own problems, of course, and in the past have endured earth-shaking challenges, of which longevity is usually the knife that cuts the deepest and is the most scarring. But standing on the outside looking in as someone who doesn’t have to daily rewind the endurance meter to deal with such challenges over and over again, for years at a time, it’s easy for me to say that thoughts of defeat and self-incrimination are mere human weakness and that they are handling things magnificently. It’s easy to say this both because I am not in their position and because I can’t be privy to all the details Yet, compassion fatigue is real. In some cases this is called STS, or secondary traumatic stress. STS often occurs, for example, when working with or caring for the severely disabled because of the relentlessness of their condition. It’s probably also an accurate descriptor for any particularly taxing and long-suffering experience. Of course, knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to refrain from punishing yourself when you were less than magnificent under the crushing though familiar weight of a burden that you’ve carried for so long.
Yet I think of the oft-quoted New Testament passage, “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.” Though in this case it might be rendered, “Lord, I love; help me to love.” I can’t sustain my compassion without assistance, though the desire for it might be present. The seedling of belief and the seedling of charity are closely intertwined, I think. A desire for both in the absence of either might be all we have at times. We must recognize that “to suffer with” merits its own responsive compassion because it’s temporally constrained and fragile, here then gone. Charity for charity, compassion for compassion, empathy for empathy, patience for patience. Even the virtues require mercy because they are not always with us, and never in their fullness. Their reclamation is itself a work of love, not a reason to despair.