How much is too much? Compassion, giving, love, sacrifice, and living a “normal” life.

I am sure many folks out there struggle with how much of oneself is appropriate to give to all the competing demands on our time, energy, resources, love, compassion, etc. and this is one of my ongoing reflections on this topic. Apologies if I repeat things I’ve said before, but it is an ongoing issue I wrestle with and imagine my blog readers wrestle with too.

This manifests in a very tangible way in our household in that one room of our four room apartment has been occupied by a cat or cats on and off since we have lived here (more on than off). Once we adopt out a current bunch of foster cats or kittens we always tell ourselves that we and our permanent cats (who do not like visitors or having a closed room) that we’ll take a break. But there are always more desperate situations, often life and death, where life means we take the kitties and death means don’t take the kitties. So we usually take them.

And, while I know there are lots of people that support our work and encourage us (which means a lot to us!) there are also those looks we get – “Oh, you are those kind of cat people.” We’ve heard “cat freaks,” and comments about not being able to set boundaries. And for me, this represents a big struggle – within myself and within our culture: how much “good” work can you do before people start to think you are dysfunctional? Or before you actually are dysfunctional in a literal sense – not functioning well. I think that this is a legitimate question, especially for ministers and others in so-called helping professions to ask.

That said, I feel that, in our culture and in our denomination even, there is a sense that we need to have some basic comforts of life and if we don’t allow those to ourselves, then perhaps we are being dysfunctional or lacking boundaries. The question is what are those basic comforts or necesities that people need in order to still function as competent helping people? Does it mean we need one day off a week? Does it mean we need an extra room in our apartment or house – a decent amount of space for all our stuff and to have a quiet space away from the others in our household? Does it mean we should be able to take one vacation a year? I think a lot of folks would agree that these are important things to have ways to stay healthy and fresh – ways to avoid burnout. In some sense, I would even agree that these are good ways to avoid burnout (you can see I’m torn here). But I wonder if we have become too convinced by our culture and by ourselves that these are things that people need to do the hard work of love and justice. Along with a million other things I could think of – nicer cars, nicer houses, nicer clothes, special treats at the spa, a food processor (something I recently justified buying). I include myself in this critique/reflection, but sometimes I want to tell us to just toughen up. I KNOW self-care is important – but I think there are many ways to care for one’s self, and people in many developing countries or in the poorest parts of our country manage keep on going without the extra stuff that we sometimes tell ourselves we need. I think of one of the families I know in Nicaragua – the mom is a school principal, the dad a professor and they both work literally 6am until 9pm six days a week, and usually work some on Sundays too. The mom does all sorts of helping work with the children at the school and the families, and has none of the things that we would consider needed “self-care” things. No vacation. No extra space in the small house with four children. No new clothes, spa visits, no days off, no time for hobbies. And she is not a wreck. She just has to get her stuff done and do it. It isn’t that fun, but she and her family make the best of it and still find joy in life. And with all the needs out there, I just wonder how much flexibility our schedules and our lives should have for those “fun” things while the world is in such dire need.

This is has been inspired by, well, a lot of things throughout my life, but also by my ongoing struggle with how to respond to the suffering I see in the world and how to respond to people who seem to me to be overly hopeful. I feel like far too often liberals especially like to be oh-so-hopeful and la la la about how things will be okay in the end and “oh aren’t we making great progress.” And frankly, we are not making such great progress. On just about anything. Poverty. Global warming. Loving all sentient beings. Children’s rights issues. Women’s rights issue. YES, I know that some progress is being made. And we can’t be all negative about everything or it will discourage people, but the progress that is being made needs to be put into perspective. It is, at best, mitigating harm – it is usually decreasing the rate of increase – not decreasing things overall (emissions, abuse, death, etc.).* And I just find it so frustrating when people (including myself!) are talking about needing this or that in terms of caring for themselves while people are just dying all over the place, greenhouse gas emissions are going up, meat consumption is going up, AIDS rates are going up (in some places), women are being raped, children are being neglected, etc. I think since we are not in the thick of the problems (at least many of us are not) we are able to have rather indulgent ideas about self-care and the sorts of comforts we need in our lives to be good-to-go.

I can just very well intentioned people I know saying, “Oh, there Elizabeth goes again being all worried about the suffering in the world. She is such a trooper” or “she has such a good heart”. I know this is meant in the kindest way, but I hate how people think that caring about dying people and sick people and suffering is somehow a personality trait or occupational calling – like it isn’t something that everyone should be fretting about and preoccupied with. Oh, yes, she cares about suffering, he wants to be a baseball player, she wants to be a computer programmer, she tends to be very interested in insects, while he tends to be interested in sad things like AIDS and global warming. When we think about compassion and concern for the well-being of the world as something that some people have and others don’t need to have or shouldn’t have or “just” don’t have, it is a huge problem. But I think that is another post.

Anyway, I don’t have answers. I know that there are a lot of tensions in this post – that it IS important not to get burned out or dysfunctional. That progress is being made on some fronts. I don’t mean this in either/or terms, but rather want to questions and reflect on the ways we understand progress and hopefulness, and self-care and dysfunctionality.

*I starred this sentence It is, at best, mitigating harm – it is usually decreasing the rate of increase – not decreasing things overall (emissions, abuse, death, etc.) because I think it is especially important to think about the progress we make relative to our ability to make progress. An easy example is to think about how even though life expectancies overall have gone up worldwide (in most areas), relative to how high they could be if there was proper medical care for all people, they are quite low. Or, say, the number of animals being put to sleep in the U.S. has decreased in the last ten years – but, given how easy and relatively cheap it is to have animals spayed or neutered, the level is still quite high. My point is to consider relative and absolute progress and not get too proud of ourselves for the absolute progress, while relative progress still leaves a lot to be desired.

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8 Responses to How much is too much? Compassion, giving, love, sacrifice, and living a “normal” life.

  1. Chalicechick says:

    Is beauty a worthy thing to seek or create?

    CC

  2. elizabeth199 says:

    I would hope so. The question for me is how that is done and at what cost… Where we learn to see and create beauty… and not to throw out the idea of beauty, but to think about it in the context of a world with many competing demands… I hope we could learn to see beauty in the cracks, in the ruptures, in the spaces in between – in the everyday miracles, in the words and voices and art of people from many different places and backgrounds, rather than more traditional, sometimes elitist pretentious sort of beauty seeking that can often be found in college English departments or fashion studios…
    But maybe your question was rhetorical.
    Either way, it was a good one.
    E

  3. Anne says:

    Dear Elizabeth, i have never read your blog before, i just googled for ‘too much compassion’ and came on this page. So you see, you are verbalising what other people are wondering about too. It is rather outrageous to have to justify yourself for taking in cats, and i THANK you, as a (dutch) cat -mate (as in flatmate).
    Perhaps writing your blog is one way for you to take a vacation? I think the less natural ones’ life is, i.e. the more time spent in offices, in cars, in front of computers, the more there is a need for holidays, separate rooms and all you write about. Nowadays for me it is already a holiday to visit another town for an afternoon or go away for just one night. Just to reflect and get homesick :-))))

    We might not cross paths again (on the internet or otherwise) so, therefore, i send you lots of love, support, happiness and …appreciation.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you for your comments, Anne. Love, support, happieness and appreciation to you as well. Much peace! Elizabeth

  5. […] The gist of my sermon that I give repeatedly in different forms is that we (and I very much include myself in this) don’t live out the values that we proclaim in our own lives. We say we believe x, y and z, but our actions don’t often enough reflect this when it gets really hard. My sermons are not so much about “do better” (although that is part of it) but more “how do we come to terms with this?” since, by my estimation, we are (I am) never going to do THAT much better at living out our values. (I won’t go into examples here, but if you want to read my writing about this you can go here, here or here.) […]

  6. Chelsea says:

    I wrote a blog on having too much compassion, and after decided to see if others felt the same way. Came across your blog, appreciate your message. I believe you’ll have one for mine.

    Continue writing…

    Namaste,

    Chelsea

  7. gina says:

    Two days ago I had to put my cat to sleep because he got hit by a car and because of his loss I could not get out of bed yesterday or today. My husband was with me when I told the vet to put him to sleep and we both cried hysterically as we watched him take his last breath. My husband recovered immediately or handled his greif better than I. I mean I feel devastated; which is why I googled ‘too much compassion’ and came to your site. I thought it ironic your mention of taking in cats. But, anyway, yes, I do think some people have too much compassion because I am one of them. I cannot watch those ASPCA commercials wuthout crying so I immediately change th channel. I have been this way all my life and have been a good samaritan many, many times. Have even left change in vending machines when I was in college thinking it would help the next person. But I think being this way can take it’s toll on emotional health because it can be depressing at times because I literally feel what the suffering person or animal is going through and it’s tough to see that. But compassion can be a positve thing when it manifests in help for those who need it.

    gina g.

  8. Elizabeth says:

    Dear Gina, I am so terribly sorry to hear about your kitty. I understand why you feel devastated. Having so much compassion and love can be very hard – it is emotionally draining. But I think you are right that it can also be very positive – one might wish that the world had more compassion than it goes. It is such a gift to love so much. I wish you care and blessings as you recover from the loss of your kitty and head back out into the world with all of your love. It is a gift, as hard as it can sometimes be to handle.
    Thanks so much for visiting my blog. With care, Elizabeth

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