Writing from the Heart: Compassion fatigue

What does it mean to give freely, and with an open heart?


There’s a pile of three nickels on my table. The VFW sends them twice a year with their fundraising envelope. They peel off very easily. No residual, yucky, gooey stuff. Should be easy peasy to give. But I am rolling my eyes and feeling manipulated. How do they expect me to take their money and not write a check? They don’t. Clever. Very clever.

I ask my husband why he persists in falling for this trick. He says, “Because they’re the real heroes.”

And of course I know down deep he’s totally right. I don’t know why I give him such a hard time.

But then flipping through the mail, I get another envelope with five shiny pennies. It’s an orphanage in Haiti. I peel off the pennies and add the envelope to the growing stack.

In just the past two weeks I have received a dollar from the Rotary Foundation and a two-dollar check from the National Humane Society, a few more nickels from Mothers against Drunk Driving and Paralyzed Veterans of America. Sometimes I read the letters, and they always start with something like, “You and I both know a single nickel won’t go far in the fight against blood cancer” … buzzwords like “spinal cord injury” and “young woman … new baby … killed … drunk driver … our nation’s wounded” are all in bold font.

The writers of direct response copy know exactly what they are doing.

If I worked for one of those companies, those words are exactly the ones I would choose. But I don’t work for one of those companies. I’m on the receiving end of the obvious manipulation. And I don’t like it. At least I didn’t like it until I started writing this piece.

And then, oops! I remembered something. When I was trying to fundraise for “The Van for Dan,” the handicapped van for my son who had MS, and the cost was prohibitive — I did the exact same thing.

Yup! I pulled on heartstrings so people would contribute so we could afford to buy a $40,000 vehicle. And it worked. Folks contributed, and I don’t think they were rolling their eyes or feeling manipulated. From the way people gave, I think they gave with wide-open hearts and even wider-open checkbooks.

When I was a kid, and my mother said “eat all your whatevers … they’re starving in China,” I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about, so I had no motivation to eat the whatevers. What did “starving in China” even mean? As a young child I couldn’t imagine it. So they were just empty words.

Then I grew up and had some losses myself, and my heart helped my imagination work better. I had something to go on, so when I got a fundraising letter and there was a photo of a child with a cleft palate, I immediately wanted to help. Then when I got a note with a picture of a starving child, I grabbed the checkbook. And for some time, that’s how it went.

So when did I start feeling manipulated?

Here’s what I think happened. The envelopes started coming in in droves, and there were free notepads and address stickers and dreamcatchers and plastic shopping bags and nail clippers. And I started making piles of the return envelopes with every intention of giving. But then after maybe nine days they would end up in the trash. So now not only have I just given up on someone in need, I have added guilt to my shame.

I think of myself as a fairly compassionate person, so how could I have shut down like this? The only thing I can figure out is there must have been a point at which I couldn’t do it anymore. It just got too overwhelming. I either stopped opening the letters, or immediately upon opening, went into numb mode. And numb has no heart. Numb has no feelings. That’s a way you can look at those photos and not really see.

I asked a few of my friends if they have donation burnout, compassion fatigue?

The common thread we all felt was anger.

Anger at late-stage capitalism, with a government that allows the vulnerable to fall through the cracks. We all echoed each other, saying, Aren’t we supposed to be the safety net for the less fortunate? What has happened to us as a nation?

So I’m kind of making a pact with myself. I will pick the charities I can afford to give to, and I will change the word manipulated to encouraged. And there will be no more rolling of the eyes. And hopefully there will just be my wide-open heart.