By Mimi B. Kraus, LCSW-C
The images of death and devastation continuing to stream from the earthquake-ravaged areas around Port-Au-Prince in Haiti are so disturbing that a normal response would be to turn away, switch the channel, and avoid dealing with it. However, as Rabbi Dr. Tsvi Hersh Weinreb has pointed out, our rabbis tell us to “see, feel, and act,” to “watch scenes of the catastrophe… and feel the pain of those who suffer” (Jewish Times, January 22). Add to this the images of death and destruction from Iraq and Afghanistan seen on the nightly news, and we wonder: how can we avoid becoming overwhelmed by all the sadness, without losing our compassion?
Let’s first acknowledge that watching others suffer and feeling their pain may result in emotional upset. We can learn to recognize the signs of burn-out, such as feelings of anxiety, depression, or irritability which persist after the TV or computer is turned off. Some of us are naturally more sensitive and more easily affected than others. It is possible to develop a kind of secondary post-traumatic stress based on too much immersion in others’ pain and suffering. In this case, you need to take care of yourself emotionally. This might mean limiting the time you look at the visual images or read about the devastation. Talking with a friend, clergyman, or counselor about your feelings and reactions can be helpful. Seek a balance in your life by planning some activities which are relaxing and enjoyable.
Becoming callous or detaching from the pain of others is also a risk of frequent exposure to difficult news or horrific images. It is a defense mechanism that we humans develop to avoid overwhelming and painful feelings. However, shutting off our compassion can rob us of meaningful connection with others and with our world, and it makes life feel much less worth living. To encourage a sense of compassion, try to focus consciously on some of the faces of the individual earthquake survivors, or on a soldier who has just lost a buddy. By putting yourself in another’s shoes, you can kindle your own empathy for others. Also, take to heart the many uplifting stories in the news about people reaching out, on the front lines or from afar, to help those whose lives and limbs have been shattered by war and natural disaster.
In responding to the pain and suffering of others, try to recognize the signs of either too much or too little feeling within yourself, as you strive for an emotional balance which includes compassion both yourself and for others. To feel less helpless, make a contribution or volunteer your time and energy to a charity or relief effort. Doing something — no matter how small — for any good cause will give you a sense that you can make a difference in the world.
By Mimi B. Kraus, LCSW-C, Associate Senior Manager, Therapy Services, Jewish Community Services, Baltimore, MD
Jewish Community Services helps you solve life’s puzzles, offering you guidance and support when you are looking for solutions. For more information, call 410-466-9200 or visit www.jcsbaltimore.org. JCS is an agency of THE ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.