Empathy fatigue is the enemy. Countless causes could benefit from people’s ideas, time, money and support. But the desire to avoid depressing stories blocks many people from the joys and benefits of making those contributions. Of course my interest in this is because empathy fatigue is part of what makes people reflexively avoid thinking or caring about poor women. Many people advise non-profits on how to lower that barrier when soliciting potential donors. But recently I heard advice for the afflicted party, the person who is feeling the empathy fatigue, on how to deal with it.
A young resident was eager to make a career in that high intensity environment, the emergency room, where the life and death consequences of being a doctor play out clearly, quickly and dramatically. Once there her expectations were confirmed. She knew that this was going to be her specialty. But as her rotation in the ER continued she found herself overwhelmed by the stream of calamities that presented themselves. Even the less severe cases too often came with deeply sad human stories. She started to believe that this was not the work for her. With that conclusion came a sense of failure and sadness. None of her reasons for wanting to do the work had changed, and she had the intellectual and physical capacity for it, but she lacked some emotional capacity to deal with the tragedies that surrounded the maladies.
As she was coming to this disheartening conclusion, she confided in one of the older doctors in the department. He shared some advice that a nurse had given him many years before. Here is what that nurse had advised:
When you encounter your patients’ emotions or tragedies, think of yourself as a conduit, not a vessel.
Imagine that you are a conduit without a limit. You accept people’s pain and allow it to pass through you. Imagine their pain washing through you, not just bottling up
This advice restored the young resident’s career plan. She says that using those metaphors, she saw patients differently: Instead of seeing them as their issues, she saw them as humans, just like her. She felt a sustainable connection to the ER environment as a place where lives were shattered and rebuilt at the same time — where there is hope and hope being lost. She said: “As a doctor you are there to be in those stories and co-write those stories as they are happening. And to be able to be present in that space is amazing.”
Let’s just imagine for a moment our country full of people who encounter both joy and sadness of others fearlessly. People who accept that poverty and suffering will never end, but also know that they can make it disappear for a moment or for a person. A truly great country full of people living wonderful lives as conduits.
(I heard the young doctor’s account on an audio clip on a site I no longer remember. If you know of it please let me know as I would like to give proper attribution.)