I’d like to say it’s compassion fatigue, or burnout over spreading myself too thin.
But my languishing recently has been from a feeling of futility and hopelessness. It wasn’t an abundance of compassion sent outwards into the world that wore me out. It was the absorption of an abundance of suffering without the ability to do anything.
I’m a doer. A striver. A fixer. A Make-Stuff-Betterer. A generalist. A utility player. Someone who pitches in and relieves pressure for other people.
Ukraine is one humanitarian disaster after another, one more dead family, bombed out apartment building, destroyed refugee convoy after another. Punctuated by dazzling displays of bravery and fierceness. None of which I can participate in or fix.
I’ve been hitting myself with a hammer for years: How do I know that what I’m doing actually matters to anyone outside my family? Am I creating lots of noise and activity and whirling up energy that goes out into the ether and doesn’t land anywhere?
This year for Lent I’ve given up the hammer. I’m not fighting my feelings of futility and stuckness. Instead, I’m listening to them a bit. I’m getting quiet rather than hustling to scratch an itch to feel impactful. I’m still giving money to aid organizations and praying for Ukraine and showing up for the volunteer projects I signed up for. When the feelings of futility creep in, I’m repeating the question my wellness coach gave us: “Yes, but what can I do?”
I’m developing a faith that if I do what I can with love in my heart, the effects will ripple outward. That I’m not serving food to refugees in Ukraine, but by delivering lasagna to neighbors in need here in St. Paul, I am alleviating suffering. I am filling a hole here that gives strength to someone else and generating love in the universe. And someone else will draw from that love and they will have a bit more strength for their part of the journey.
I’m doing what I can here, putting more love in where I can, and being compassionate to that restless feeling that tells me I should be doing more. I will do what I can in this season of Lent and listen for what my next calling is.
I take comfort from this quote from Ursula Wolfe-Rocca. She says: “It can be overwhelming to witness / experience / take in all the injustices of the moment; the good news is that *they’re all connected.* So if your little corner of work involves pulling at one of the threads, you’re helping to unravel the whole damn cloth.”
This homily excerpt from Father Clay starts off feeding into my feelings of overwhelm and reinforcing the idea that we have a responsibility to fix broken systems – and there are so many broken systems. But it ends in a place of deep quiet, of prayer and listening to hear what my own role is in fixing systems and healing suffering. Prayer, meditation, and quiet are first steps toward personal and global peace. Toward focusing our angry energy toward something useful. I need this break from trying to make things happen to discern where my energies are best spent. I hope you have that same opportunity for reflection.
Becoming Instruments of God
So what can we do? We can look at what we can change, no only personally, but also in the very systems of our society. When we look at all this, it is clear that there needs to be change in our families, our cities, our nation and our world. Different systems need to be looked at – religious systems, the whole economic situation of people. We need to look at race, at gender, at sexual orientation. What can we do with all these different systems to make it better for people throughout the world, as well as for those close to us, to make it more just for everyone?…
We have to stop and realize that every human person is the image of God.
As we become more just, we have to make sure that everybody has at least their basic needs met, that everybody has decent clothes, adequate medical care, opportunities to expand the mind, the soul and the spirit. I don’t have all the answers for how to do this, but I do really believe that we need to stop and take a look. All of our systems are imperfect, though some are better than others. …
If we can move to the place where we can see the humanity and the dignity of every human person, we will have a strong foundation for doing just things.
There are a couple of ways that we can begin to do this. One is that even though we are very prejudiced toward a group of people in general, when we get to know individual persons and the differences across the whole spectrum, when we get to know somebody and see who they are and what they are really like, our prejudices will start to fade away. …
There is something else we can do: quiet prayer. As we quietly pray, as we try to let ourselves rest in the love that is God, we can allow that love to come into us. Not forcing it, just letting it come in and saying to it, “Love me and do with everybody and with me what you want.” Just let that love come in. It will start to break down the narrowness of our minds and the hardness of our hearts. There’s something about meditation, contemplation, and quiet prayer (whatever we call it) that allows this to happen. Prayer starts to work on all those twisted things inside us. We really need to pray.
From the homily “Becoming Instruments of God” in Surrounded by Love by Father John Clay © 2005