Today, Dec. 2, 2015, news and social media feeds are filled with headlines like “the second mass shooting today and the 355th this year.” With 14 people killed and 17 injured in San Bernadino, California, one can’t help but feel helpless in the face of continuous tragedy.
I turned to the wisdom of Roshi Joan Halifax, Founding Abbot of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who was interviewed on On Being with Krista Tippett in 2013. The interview is as relevant as ever, and the following is excerpted on the theme of moral distress, outrage, futility, and the range of responses we have to the pain of witnessing suffering.
Krista’s question was prompted by the overwhelming amount of terrible news and vivid pictures we get bombarded with on a daily basis. She asks:
“So the question that’s in this room and I think is out there in the world and in this country right now is how do we find the courage? How do we heal enough? How do we be present to [suffering] and not be overwhelmed by it?”
Joan Halifax answers, saying that in response to such bombardment, we enter into a state of “moral distress and futility,” and the moral distress requires us to feel that something needs to happen. She goes on:
“Children need to be protected, we have to stop rape and violence toward women in the Congo, and we feel this profound moral conflict. And yet we can’t do anything about it and we enter into a state either of moral outrage or we go into states of avoidance through addictive behaviors where we just, you know, don’t want to deal with it or we just go into another state of withdrawal, a kind of numbness, or into freeze.
And I think a lot of this world that is hooked up in the media right now, that a good part of the globe is going numb. And I don’t really agree… with the term ‘compassion fatigue.’ I think what we’re seeing actually is not compassion fatigue, but empathic distress where there’s a resonance, but we’re not able to stabilize ourselves when we’re exposed to this kind of suffering. When we are more stabilized then we can face the world with more buoyancy, we have more resilience.”