This morning I went through my usual routine.  I woke up, poured myself a bowl of cereal and logged on to BBC News to catch up on the day’s headlines.  As I saw yet again the pictures of Haitians trapped in the rubble, hungry crowds waiting for food and children crying from exhaustion, I had a hard time continuing to read.

After a week of constant news, constant worry and constant heartache, I was beginning to grow weary of it all.  I had begun to reach the invisible threshold of compassion fatigue…

I think it’s something everyone deals with.  We can only absorb so many awful stories and statistics before numbness sets in.  We get to a point in which we don’t want to feel bad anymore.  We wish we could just get back to life “as usual.”

How do we continue to care?

Now, I don’t think that compassion fatigue is necessarily a bad or evil thing.  In my opinion, it’s totally natural.  We all crave normalcy and routine in our everyday lives.

To stay actively engaged with the crisis in Haiti, we must willingly force ourselves to absorb heart-breaking material over and over again.  Eventually, this becomes a burden.

But here’s the thing… Even though compassion fatigue is normal, we must find ways to fight against it.  This crisis will not be over soon.  It could be months, years or decades before Haiti is finally back on its feet.

So how do we stay engaged?  How do we keep our hearts in tune with the struggle of the Haitian people?  How do we avoid “sympathy burnout”?

Well, I am no expert on this, but I have had quite a bit of awareness dumped in my lap over the last few years.  New social injustices, natural disasters and global poverty have all become a part of my everyday consciousness.

So here are a few of the things that have helped me to stay engaged when my heart longs to disconnect…

Make it Personal

Pastor Pierre of Nehemiah Vision Ministries. One man in the middle of the crisis.

Often, I find myself getting worn out in the midst of huge and staggering statistics.  When a news report says that 70,000 bodies have already been buried in Haiti and that up to 200,000 could have died in the quake, it’s hard to engage my heart.

I don’t even really know what 70,000 of anything looks like.  It’s a lot, of course, but big numbers begin to lose their meaning for me.

That’s why I find it enormously helpful to connect with two or three individuals.  When I am listening to the stories of just a handful of people, the big news reports and statistics begin to fit into a context I can get my head around.

For starters, you might take a look at some of the following…

This little one needs you to get inolved!

Get Involved

David Livingstone once said, “Sympathy is no substitute for action.”  He’s right.

When you are reaching the threshold of compassion fatigue, it’s time to get into the game!  By volunteering your time, energy and money, you are giving yourself a reason to continue caring.

Because I might be heading down to Haiti soon, I now have a filter with which to engage the news and stories I hear each day.  I can envision myself in those situations and know more specifically how to pray.

But you don’t have to go to Haiti to help Haiti.

Consider volunteering with organizations in your area that are preparing to send medical teams.  Put together a fund-raising event doing things you love to do (artwork, music, pottery, whatever!).  Find creative ways to raise money and get your friends and family involved (one person I met recently had her friends pledge a certain dollar amount for every point the Colts scored on Saturday… they raised over $6000!).

By staying active in your engagement, you can avoid the restless emotional fatigue that comes from just sitting at home with the news on…

Pray Well

One of many children that need our prayers right now.

At some point, of course, there will come a time (or many times) where we are simply overwhelmed by the immense tragedy of it all.  It is in time like these when we have no choice but to pray.

But how to you put words to what you’re feeling?  As I look at the unspeakable tragedy going on right now in Haiti, I don’t even know how to pray.  Thankfully, the Holy Spirit is able to take our heart’s groans and turn them into prayers.

Romans 8:26 says “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”

So even if we have no words to pray, we need to continue opening our hearts to God.  He will hear.  He will understand.  Even if we do not…

Accept the Fever

Of course, if we choose to truly engage our hearts with the struggle and pain of the Haitian people, we will never get back to normal.  By wading into the tragedy with our hearts and hands open, we run the risk of catching the Low Grade Fever of Sadness.

It’s not life threatening.  You can still grow, laugh, and learn… but just below the surface will be the knowledge that the world is broken.  That things are not as they are meant to be.  It’s a sadness that can never really leave you until the Kingdom of God is finally revealed in all its power.

But if you are willing to take on the Low Grade Fever of Sadness, if you are willing to let the plight of the poor become part of your consciousness and if you are open to the life-change that may result, I guarantee that you will never be the same…


It’s never easy to keep your heart engaged with issues hundreds of miles away, but it is possible.

Don’t give up!

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About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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  1. Amy Sorrells said... 


    January 19th, 2010 at 2:02 pm  

    I didn’t realize it, but my heart’s been waiting for this post for a few days now. Perfect.

  2. Kristen Arnold said... 


    January 19th, 2010 at 2:23 pm  

    Awesome Article Barry very well said, thanks for that, I’ve been feeling this way in many areas for quite a while now, burying myself in the current events of social justice is hard when I feel so crippled by my lack of ability to go and do. But I know I have to keep my heart soft all while keeping my attitude impervious to feelings of failure. Otherwise I am doomed to become hollow and depressed by the truths I can’t let go of, thanks for the reminder that we’re not alone in this struggle and we all have to go through it. Keep it up, I’ll be praying that you can get to Haiti soon, and certainly be praying for you when you’re there.

  3. amy bell said... 


    January 19th, 2010 at 5:20 pm  

    i don’t know how you do it…but, you said exactly what i have been feeling for haiti….feeling helpless and praying every day…the livesay blog has been so important for me to stay focused….and pray specifically….

    wonderful post…

  4. Stacy Wasmuth said... 


    January 19th, 2010 at 8:44 pm  

    Excellent words, Barry. Thank you!

  5. Em Shake said... 


    January 20th, 2010 at 1:31 am  

    Great article. It’s full of truth and practical ways to fight “compassion fatigue,” which most need to hear. Thanks.

  6. Dave Rod said... 


    January 20th, 2010 at 7:48 am  

    Well, looks like we won’t have the opportunity to have compassion fatigue for long if what we were told is going to happen. Sounds like 300 orphans are en route to Indy.

  7. Marcy said... 


    January 21st, 2010 at 1:05 pm  

    Great word of encouragement. I pray that as you go to Haiti you will not only reach out to those affected but will also inspire those who’ve gone to reach out. God bless.

  8. rob yonan said... 


    January 22nd, 2010 at 6:29 pm  

    Thank you Barry. This is very well said and gives words to what looms before me.
    It takes a great deal of energy to be in the pain of those who hurt – enough to act on their behalf – while not spiraling into despair.
    Genuine joy and hope is so important in light of so much hurt. Lord grant me the grace to walk that path well.

  9. Breanna Sipple said... 


    February 10th, 2011 at 10:05 am  

    This is so encouraging and inspiring! I, along with quite a few others I know, have definitely experienced compassion fatigue; I see it on my campus, as we respond to different things happening in the world, many stop responding because they become numb. Thanks for writing about some ways I can remember and share how to “stay engaged when our heart longs to disconnect.” Now I’m going to check out Livesay’s blog…

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