Compassion Fatigue - Why I'm Tired Of Trying To Help People
Dedicated to Francis Williams of Grand Rapids, Michigan, who passed away unexpectedly yesterday. She was one of a small group of people who (unknowingly) helped me find my purpose of impacting the world we live in the world when I had no purpose.
Who am I? I suppose in the Grand Scheme, it doesn't really matter. I’m not a Nobel Prize winner, a notable human rights champion, or would-be world-beater. I’m just one of many people who, as a child had dreams of what he wanted to be...of what he wanted to do as an adult. As a black child, I had a few singular if not “unusual” intellectual interests; my focus would vacillate back-and-forth between current events, geography, politics, the weather, and astronomy. All told, as a child I knew I wanted to be a scientist. I wanted to be one of those smart men who wore the white lab coats, who learned about things and told the world what he knew. Even at the age of 13, when my brother, mother, and myself were working side-by-side with migrant workers picking fruit and vegetables, such thinking provided a nice distraction from such toil. In short, I wanted to be someone who helped others. However, given my frustrations with dealing with the convoluted and oftentimes counterproductive obstructions we call “rules,” I have had my fill with helping others.
Before you call me “selfish” or jump to similar conclusions, it’s not what you think. My decision to stop helping others is not the result of some change-of-heart toward selfishness. My decision is a by-product of how organizations today hinder individuals seeking to be a part of a grand solution because (1) most are bound by adherence to rules and guidelines rather than solutions, and (2) because many are staffed with people who think abstract applications are the solution to concrete problems. Most are attempting to put a bandage on individual problems on the cut arteries of systemic issues. Having spent years as a volunteer community organizer and voter registrar, I know that attacking a systemic problem wholesale is preferable than to attempting to fix an endless amount of individual leaks in a problem. You don’t go to each individual and attempt to impart a message upon them; you get the general message out to the community at large and work to change the mindset. More importantly, you don’t use people who have no personal experience or genuine desire to change the negative to the positive. You seek out people like myself, who've spent time at the bottom of the social heap, and who understand social problems and issues on a personal level. However, my experience is that most public service organizations seeking to assist those in need neither understand nor are inclined to accept this reality.
But to understand my perspective, there are some things you need to know about me. The seeds of my desire to help others were planted in me during my childhood. While growing up like some children I would occasion to encounter a couple of those old dudes who seemingly have a “war story” for every occasion; one of those men seemingly who saw-it-all and did-it-all. These men were both fascinating and annoying at the same time. I was the type of child who was easily spellbound by such stories about real life. The attraction and appeal of such yarns for me from these life-seasoned individuals was based on the fact that all of them had transcended my own limited experiences in life. However, these old men always seemed to have a story to illustrate why it was important to do things a certain way, which made the object lessons they were trying to convey somewhat annoying. I sometimes remember as a child complaining about how these “old dudes think they know everything.” Fast forward about 30 years.
Now, I’m one of those old dudes. At 2 score and 6, my own life’s circumstances have been such that I have either tried or engaged in so many different vocations and happenings that my own circumstances—and the wisdom I've acquired as a result—far transcends those most younger than myself (and a few older). Motivated by the urges to grow personally and “be somebody who makes a difference,” in my time I've worked side-by-side with migrant workers picking produce (as a teen to pay the bills), written grants, joined the military (infantry), been employed full time as a farm worker, worked factories, live in public housing (i.e., the projects), long-term substitute teacher, assembled computers, driven big rigs, graduated college (with honors), attended graduate school, been a camp counselor, slept in bathtubs and automobiles, conned my way into a presidential speech, and other things that escape my memory at the moment. I've maintained that childlike fascination with learning, particularly all things related to history, astronomy, and politics. I read routinely read everything thing from Shakespeare, Voltaire, to Malcolm X. Having learned quite a lot from my experiences, I feel that I am—comparatively speaking—now in the same category as those sages who attempted to school me years ago as a child on the lessons of life. Call it the arrogance (or wisdom) of age and experience. In a sense, I have indeed become one of those men who learned and proceeded told the world what he knew.
However, such a man was not what I had intended to make my way in the world as. As a young adult, a combination of circumstances and decisions led me strive to become a human rights lawyer…what I thought to be “my calling” at the time. But, life (and more decisions, some ill-made) tends to have a way of imposing its own designs on our individual destinies. The detours that I ended up making on the path to law school was what ultimately forced me into the various paths that I had taken…paths which –some out of economic necessity—forced me into the many vocations that left me with Grand Scheme insights rather than large weekly take-home paychecks. But my experiences did impart on me an all-consuming, if not vague desire to help others.
Haters have accused me of everything, including, being “a legend in my own mind.” Considering that such individuals are typically nowhere near as well-lived as myself, I tend look down upon them with the same kind of on-mountain-high attitude that God Himself would adopt if He tried to explain to an ant how a television works. Others can’t believe that I've experienced so much in my time here on this mortal coil. Whatever side or assessment people make take toward me, suffice it to say that I've seen what I've seen, done, what I've done, and know what I know.
But after years of registering voters to vote, trying to leave positive thoughts on young minds as a (unlicensed) teacher, trying to instill on other young people the love of education, working for and volunteering with various nonprofit organizations, and trying to help those trapped within the mental and emotional walls of their own making, I have decided that I am no longer up to the tasks of trying to make the world a better place. Don’t get me wrong…I still feel compelled to help others. It’s just that I find that the rules, expectations, and the parameters set by organizations who expect me to be a positive force of change while walking the hair’s-width between “professional” guidelines and competency too constricting for me to be effective.
Keep in mind that I grew up during a time period (the 1970s & 80's) when people working with the less fortunate, whether as employees or volunteers, were both professional and realistic. During that time, speaking one’s mind and being forthright were as necessary to vocations focused on helping others as they were to basic human interaction itself. Sure, there was some blurring of boundaries, but they were done with the best of intentions. The one time that I can recall personally was during the early 1990s when I informed an employment case manager that I was into drawing and painting. He then proceeded—at his own expense—to purchase for me a small amount of art supplies and suggested that I start airbrushing T-shirts to sell them, which I did for a brief time. That same individual also took a personal interest in me in helping me learn how to write grants. The difference between then and now is that now we have an entire volume of added “professional” guidelines which prevent those of us who enjoy working and helping others to do such things. If you work in the context of a professional organization today, you exhibit a level of outward concern, without actually showing concern for those in need. My problem is that I don’t operate that way. No, I’m not talking about crossing personal boundaries and paying someone’s rent for the month. I’m talking about having the relative freedom to be able to convey the relevance of object lessons without being told, “You can’t say that,” or being limited to empty gestures of “concern” that lack the substance of effect.
What I find particularly annoying is that many of the new organizational guidelines I find such a hindrance to doing the right thing were crafted by individuals younger than myself, who haven’t experienced even a fraction of (the) life that I and others have. Most of these so-called “professionals” have spent the majority of their lives sitting in classrooms, learning a bunch of bull**** theories about human behavior, while those like myself were out here learning why many such theories are irrelevant in the real world. What these rule makers lack in the way of basic practical insights is that if you are truly dedicated to working with and helping others the field, you have to be able to think on your feet and bend the rules, while maintaining both the effectiveness and the ultimate goal of our endeavor(s). Rather than seeing every problem as an opportunity to apply some New Age therapeutic or half-hearted institutional approach, some problems just need a bit of hard truth interjected into them.
I encountered such bureaucratic roadblocks during my time as a (unlicensed) teacher, as a camp counselor, case manager, and in other professions that I been involved with. In most cases, the specter of legal liability creates the necessity for many social service and nonprofit organizations to institute such rules that acknowledges the “rights” of their clientele, but often hinders effective treatment and/or administration of assistance. In trying to serve others, many of us in the service of our fellow man are limited by what we can say, how far we are able to go, what we are able to fully do, or to what lengths to which we able to go in order to help others. As professionals, we cannot even offer a hug to those suffering or lacking affection because of what it might “look like.” There is simply no level of humanity left in public service. And we can thank our lawsuit-eager society for creating a climate by which we cannot fully engage and help others. In essence, everyone has ever harbored a lawsuit-as-a-remedy mentality is responsible for the creation of limits by which how far people like myself (and others) are able to go to help others.
Teachers are the best example of this; most cannot fully engage the minds of their students, for fear of saying something which their parents might find “offensive” or not in recognition of their children’ “rights.” I observed this during the 2 years or so I thought my calling had been to teach…after having been told by my professional peers that it was something I was “born to do.” However, it’s simply not desired that teachers express an errant thought themselves…yet alone one which might reflect a rich life experience that may convey a valuable lesson that might not be learned in a book. They are expected to teach for testing. Period. Teaching is almost an impossible profession. Like many professions geared toward helping others, more time is spent trying to “protect” the “rights” of children than actually administering teaching and/or effective services. Between the years spent substitute teaching and the moment I came to understand this reality of teaching, I am so glad that I was rejected by Teach For America and the other similar organizations I applied to (because of their guidelines that applicants not have any previous classroom experience). Don’t get me wrong, I still believe there is a need for exceptional teachers in the classroom, especially black males like myself. But today’s climate of rules and liability as a primary consideration doesn’t allow exceptional people to act exceptionally or do what they do best in their chosen fields.
I recall an instance during my last tenure as a case manager working with at-risk youth. We had a kid on our caseload who got decent grades, but had been having issues with smoking marijuana…against his mother’s wishes. The kid’s mother had adamantly voiced her opposition to his smoking it period, especially in the home. My suggestion was—at least what I thought at the time—simple. Although I, in my capacity as an in-home professional, made it clear that smoking marijuana was illegal and that it was preferred that he not smoke it at all, thought that we make small steps with regards to the issue. Keep in mind that this kid explicitly stated that he was not going to stop smoking marijuana, I suggested as a starting point that he not smoke in the home, and that he could possibly smoke outside on the porch.
My goal was simple; if he was willing to show a level of compliance with my suggestion, then I would move on to his stopping smoking overall after he had stopped smoking in the home. My reasoning was that if this kid was as open to following the wishes of his mother, then we as professionals wouldn’t have had to been called in the first place..so take the attempt to change his behavior slowly. It was a line of reasoning I had developed during my observations as a camp/youth counselor. You take change in small steps after creating a rapport with your client.
Unfortunately, the kid’s mother and my co-workers—all of them younger and less experienced in the nuances of real life than myself—did not agree. The mother erroneously reported that I “told him to go out and smoke marijuana,” which of course wasn’t true. With the criticisms that I’d gotten from the youngsters around me, I thought that I would bounce the case and my proposed solution to an objective party, my older sister who herself is a parent. As I told her of the kid’s addiction to smoking weed (and let’s be clear…one can be addicted to marijuana), I hadn’t barely articulated my ultimate goal when she all but finished telling me what my own goal for the kid was. So I now I knew that I wasn’t living under some self-generated delusion of I-know-what’s-best-ism (what’s more, I wasn’t acknowledging the fact that I helped raise 5 of my 6 nieces and nephews—something that neither the young mother of this kid, or any of my contemporaries had done). I don’t mind having my perceptions questioned; after all my experiences and insights are not the same as that of others. However, I have a very big problem when someone questions my judgment. If I’m given the latitude and trust to help others, then I expect to be given the space to operate as many a mature and life-seasoned person would be allowed.
Another instance I recall where others did not agree with me was during my time as a counselor at an outdoor facility for at-risk teens. Because of my age, my no-nonsense approach in dealing with the kids, and my no-BS bluntness in working the kids through their issues, most of them respected me to the point where I was able handle a group of 12 troubled boys alone. After the facility had converted over to a residential facility, I had been given a particularly troublesome kid. He was not only defiant, but rude, self-absorbed, knew more than any adult (yet, was adamant that “you can’t understand my life”), lacked both sympathy and empathy, disrespectful toward his mother (and most authority figures), and engaged in recreational drug use…just to name a few of his problems. He would even interfere when we were trying to deal with other youths, verbally berating us for our “errors” in judgment.
This kid was streetwise enough to pit one of my overly-involved supervisors—one who made the kids her priority, even to the detriment of relations with staff—against us counselors. Whenever we counselors were exercising out duties as their immediate caretakers, he would complain to this supervisor. Soon, other kids at camp soon took this kid’s lead in being able to manipulate this particular overly-invested supervisor into putting us counselors in our place so to speak, thus giving them a position to keep our authority in check, to their collective benefit. The kid who had started all of the drama informed on me, and I was called to the carpet. The complaint was that I was being overly sarcastic toward he and a couple of other particularly troubling kids, which I was. The problem was that these kids were influencing dissent among the other kids, making my job all the harder. I was told that my “sarcasm was not going to be tolerated.” I looked my supervisor in the eye and told her that “by virtue of my experience, we’re simply not going to agree on how to deal with these kids. These kids have been skipping school, using drugs, assaulting other kids and adults. Now all of a sudden, my sarcasm is ‘upsetting them?’ You’re letting yourself be used by these kids.” I told her in no uncertain terms that I wouldn’t allow myself to be manipulated or be a victim of manipulation. We parted ways, never agreeing to even disagree.
But when I find myself consistently in the company of those seeking to play “strictly by the rules,“ those who lack the experience of experience, who put their faith in theories of behavior rather than knowing how people react to the insistence of change (instead of being able to prod change to along gradually), then it’s time to question my effectiveness as well as my commitment to helping others within the context of organizations which profess to . Call it the arrogance of experience, age, or whatever you like. Just as I wouldn’t question the life and general experiences of my elders in life, I don’t expect others younger or less experienced to question mine. The way I see things is, if my actions did not result in catastrophic destruction, a financial meltdown, or physical/mental maiming of life and limb, then I see no problem with bending “rules” in order to help others.
I liken my personal beef with hindering rules to the recent incident out in California where a staff member of a nursing home, one whom identified herself as a nurse, refused to administer resuscitation to an 87-year-old resident of the home who had collapsed into unconsciousness. Despite the pleas of a 9-1-1 operator, who was recorded begging the staff member to administer CPR to the unconscious elderly woman, the staff member refused, citing company policy “against staff or residents,” trained or not administering such first aid to stricken residents. The operator had even assumed legal responsibility for anything that might happen in the course of trying to save the resident’s life, but was still refused by the staff member. The elderly woman eventually died.
The upshot is that individuals like myself cannot help others to the full capacity of our abilities (or desires) if organizations are going to tie our hands behind our backs. There is no need for me to ask those I work with, do you want it done “right,” or do you want it done effectively? It’s simply too much effort for someone like myself to maintain the delicate dance of “’right’ versus best” when it comes to helping others. It’s best that I bow out and leave what passes for helping others to the New Age know-it-alls who forget that some of us were around long before “the rules, and long before “following the rules” became the goal rather than the method by which we help others. I don’t expect society to change for me, because I damned-sure have no intention of changing for it. I still enjoy and desire to help others, but not within the confines of controlled organizations. I learned a long time ago that anytime you limit either your options or the methods in seeking a solution, you limit your potential for success. This is a fact that I see that our schools, our social service organizations, and their sponsors fail to learn.
I believe that my personal narrative is a cautionary tale regarding how the structures of our various social service institutions and their impedimentary rules preventing effective servicing on their parts, and how they discourage people like myself from trying to help others because of their blind adherence to the way of doing things. Those institutions seeking to change things have to themselves be open to change. In being conservative in our approach to helping others, we often find ourselves in a corner of thinking because we then lose the capacity to adapt to either change or need. It is my ultimate goal to eventually start my own nonprofit organization with the expressed goal of creating substantive solutions and effective long-term remedies to problems. The purpose is so people like myself can have the freedom to be as “unorthodoxed” in our solutions as necessary to make society better. In the meantime, I share the insight that some of us who have an innate need to help others need the ability to be flexible, to make the hard decisions, and the creativity to search for solutions beyond the restrictions of artificially-established parameters. For me, a lower-paying position that affords me the more room to make decisions is infinitely more preferable to a position that pays relatively well, but restricts my decisions and movements.
So speaks the voice of experience.