Exhaustion ethics

As the speed of life increases, Lisa Nichols Hickman fears that a too-full life limits one’s capacity to care. Yet the parable of the Good Samaritan shows that it is possible to overcome this “exhaustion ethic.”

When a nurse is exhausted by the ills on his hospital floor, we might diagnose the problem as compassion fatigue. A form of traumatic stress disorder affecting overwhelmed caregivers, compassion fatigue takes a physical, financial, vocational, emotional and spiritual toll.

It was first diagnosed among nurses, and some people argue that it has become widespread because of pervasive news media coverage of crises around the world.

But if compassion fatigue is exhaustion from caring, perhaps a new, related diagnosis is needed for life in the 21st century: How do you describe someone who is exhausted, not from caring, but simply from living?

As the speed of living increases, the amount of sleep decreases, the connection to technological devices expands exponentially, the news unfolds 24 hours a day and the financial world spins chaotically, we are faced, not with a loss of compassion, but with utter exhaustion.

In those moments when we are asked to care, an “exhaustion ethic” is at play. What decision do I make when weary?

The story of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel aches with exhaustion. Poet e.e. cummings tells the story in the poem “a man who had fallen among thieves”:

a man who had fallen among thieves
lay by the roadside on his back
dressed in fifteenthrate ideas
wearing a round jeer for a hat

The third stanza names the source of the exhaustion:

whereon a dozen staunch and leal
citizens did graze at pause
then fired by hypercivic zeal
sought newer pastures or because

Three times in one line it points to the pulse of the people surrounding the man in need: “fired by hypercivic zeal.” Fired up. Hyper. Zealous. Though the citizens pause, they resume their frenetic pace to seek “newer pastures.” As our very pulses change from the invading impulse of a world fired by hyperconnectivity, our heart for care will be affected.

In the famous experiment at Princeton Theological Seminary, John M. Darley and C. Daniel Batson tested groups of seminarians to see how they reacted to a coughing man slumped in a doorway. One group was told they were late; other students were told to take their time. Overall, 40 percent of the seminarians stopped to help. But of the group urged to hurry, only 10 percent offered aid. Of those who had a few moments to spare, more than 60 percent paused to help.

Certainly this is a story of hypocrisy: seminarians who are not “Samaritans.” But it also is a witness to the conditioned mindset of hurry. The psychologists realized that as the speed of life increases, the possibility for ethical choice becomes a rarity: a too-full life limits the capacity to care.

In the tenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Christ commissions the disciples to go out two by two to cure the sick and proclaim the gospel (Luke 10:1-12). This text is paired with the telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan in the second half of the chapter (Luke 10:30-37). The lesson in exhaustion is a lesson for those who are sent.

Certainly Luke, a doctor, understood the possibility of both compassion fatigue and exhaustion ethics. Tiredness from the traumas of first-century Galilee would be plausible for a doctor of the day. Jesus himself got so overwhelmed from the necessary healings that he retreated upon numerous occasions to a quiet place for prayer.

Any doctor would hurry from patient to patient, so pressed that an ethic of exhaustion might help him rationalize passing by on the other side. But a priest and a Levite? These are two people in society who are expected to care. They are expected to be protected from compassion fatigue and exhaustion ethics. Yet they pass by on the other side.

It’s the Samaritan who stops. He shows mercy. Verbs dominate his response: moved, bandaged, poured, put, brought, took care, gave, came back, [promised to] give more. This Samaritan passes the test. He becomes the model for each of the 70, for the legal and the clerical worlds. He becomes the model for this life and for the next. He combats an ethic of exhaustion with the law of love.

Cummings describes it this way:

Brushing from whom the stiffened puke
i put him all into my arms
and staggered banged with terror through
a million billion trillion stars

 

This story that began on an ordinary highway now encompasses the universe. The citizens on the highways and byways, full of fired-up, hypercivic zeal, unable to see the one in need, are counterbalanced by the one who understands that little bit of heaven in the human before him. From a highway to those million billion trillion stars encompassing the heavens, the speaker gathers up the one in need “all” into his arms. Seeing both the human and the heavens is possible only for the one who operates out of expansive gospel love.

In Christ we find a gospel that trumps law, a service that goes beyond conscience and a heart that transcends compassion. What is the greatest commandment (Luke 10:27)? To love God and to love neighbor. In other words, Think about heaven; remember all humanity. Heaven, human. The Good Samaritan is the visual parable of this vision: Scripture with an eye to heaven on earth; service with an eye to human need.

A hospice care chaplain in our area recently told a story of a nurse in a local hospital. The nurse realized an elderly gentleman on her floor did not have friends or family visiting. He was lonely. Even more, she knew he was nearing the end of his life.

She went in to visit him whenever possible, amid all the stress of a decreasing hospital staff and increased patient load. At first they talked about the day’s news and the weather outside. Over time, they talked about their faith and their fears. The patient admitted to the nurse how afraid he was of dying alone.

Knowing that her time, as much as she didn’t want it to be, was limited, she encouraged other nurses to pay visits around the clock as well. When she realized this was not enough, she dragged in a chair from a waiting room and set it next to his bed.

“I know you are afraid of dying alone. I am making every effort to be here as much as I can. If you are ever afraid or feeling lonely, I want you to know that I envision Christ himself sitting in this chair beside you.”

Weeks later, the nurse came into the hospital to learn that her patient had passed away during the night. The staff seemed to be scratching their heads as they said, “He wasn’t in his bed when he died. Why was he halfway on the chair?”

The nurse knew: He was reaching out to the embodiment of eternal life. Christ was the one who met him and said:

i put him all into my arms
and staggered banged with terror through
a million billion trillion stars

 

The loving nurse, the caring Samaritan, the unhurried seminarians -- all muddle through the complicated roadways of this life and even when “banged with terror” strive for those stars by placing the one in their care tenderly into the arms of Christ through compassion that transcends fatigue.