You are probably familiar with the feeling that your pain and suffering are greater than most, even when you rationally understand that there is no way you could actually know such a thing. On the other side of this abyss is the familiar sentiment that others’ challenges and sufferings appear far greater than yours. It 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.
Wearing down our ability to maintain a virtuous disposition is one of suffering’s primary tools. I’ve particularly observed this with friends who care for loved ones with severe and debilitating injuries, disease, and especially disabilities. Some days they just don’t have it in them, they say. Some days there is little compassion, no patience, a desire to move past the struggle and just be done with it already. Any stored up resilience to the physical exhaustion that claims their lives every day, including inspiration from true friends who regularly comfort them and cheer them on are simply not always sufficient. Some days death is far preferable.
Like most people, I have had my own chapters of crawling through mud and lurching through seemingly endless shadow, 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 the years- and sometimes decades-long battle over and over again, it’s easy for me to say that thoughts of defeat and self-incrimination are mere human weakness so on the contrary thet 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 experience that grinds and hollows out over long periods of time. 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 passage in Mark’s gospel, “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.” 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 their absence might be all we have at times. We should 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 totality Their reclamation is itself a work of love, not a reason to despair. Stretched to capacity in the midst of our weary raggedness, mercy for mercy is the essence of grace.