I recently listened to a podcast of my favorite NPR show, On Being, for entertainment on a long drive. Krista Tippett interviewed New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who has written about atrocities in China, Dafur, Congo and around the globe, and the two talked about whether journalism can serve as a humanitarian art (read more or listen to the interview here).
One of the most fascinating and disturbing parts of the interview was their discussion of a study done by sociologist Paul Slovic, who concluded that “compassion fatigue” – that is, the point in which we are so overwhelmed by global suffering and poverty that we are too paralyzed to take any action – sets in a lot sooner than one might guess:
“In a study from the Decision Science Research Institute, Slovic and his team presented some people with the opportunity to donate to a starving girl named Rokia, and others to a starving boy named Moussa. People responded compassionately to their cause. He then presented a third group of people with the opportunity to donate to both Rokia and Moussa, helping both of them equally. Surprisingly, people were less likely to donate anything at all when they were presented with two starving children.” (source here).
You read right. Slovic found that hopelessness and disenchantment set in at the number two. Not billions. Not thousands or even hundreds of starving children. Just two.
Apparently it doesn’t take much for us to feel overwhelmed, hopeless and helpless in the face of global suffering. And when I think about my own giving history, I know this is true.
When I first read The Hole in Our Gospel, by World Vision president Richard Stearns, I was awed by the statistics. I told everyone I knew about the book and urged everyone I knew to read it, but I didn’t actually DO anything about the global poverty Stearns wrote about. I read the book. I thought about it. And then I put the book on my shelf.
About six months later I read The Hole in Our Gospel again in preparation for a blog series I planned to write. Except this time, coincidentally, I read it at the same time I read Ann Voskamp’s account of her Compassion trip to Guatemala. Seeing those pictures of little Xiomara’s home — her tiny cinder block kitchen, the bedroom she shared with her entire family, the thin cloths that covered holes in their tin shack — brought the overwhelming statistics in Stearns’ book to life. I remember sitting with my son Noah at the computer one night as we scrolled through photo after photo of Xiomara’s house and the Guatemalan slums where she lived.
Today we celebrated Global Missions Sunday at my church, and I was privileged to hear Marilee Pierce Dunker, daughter of World Vision founded Bob Pierce, speak about global poverty. Marilee suggested two important truths that fly in the face of compassion fatigue.
First, she reminded me that God commands that I help the needy. As Marilee mentioned, he doesn’t suggest it, he doesn’t advise it, he doesn’t even ask that I help. He commands it:
“There will always be poor in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded…toward the poor and needy.” (Deuteronomy 15:11).
And second, Marilee reminded me of this:
“God is always talking to us, always calling us. The question is whether you want to listen.”
It’s easy to choose the opposite, of course – to fall back on the age-old excuse: what difference can I make against such an insurmountable problem? I’m only one person, after all, and there are billions suffering. What’s the point?
But the point, I think, isn’t to help all the billions of people at once. It’s to help one single person at a time. The Pedro. The Xiomara.
And the choice to offer that help is all mine. And so I ask myself today: do I want to listen to that One voice?
Have you ever felt paralyzed by the overwhelming poverty that exists in the world? Do you have any tips for overcoming compassion fatigue?
As a side note…my church is studying The Hole in Our Gospel for our small group study this fall, and a number of writers are blogging about the book on Southwood’s website. I will post my contributions here every Tuesday for the next six weeks. But if you want to read more, please head over to Southwood’s blog for some very insightful posts (every day for the next six weeks)!
Sharing with Ann Voskamp and her Walk with Him Wednesday series on how we practice hope:
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