Jul 18, 2021
Fatigue. Fatigue is a very real thing. Now perhaps you do not feel exhausted at this precise moment, but I imagine you know exhaustion. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, socially, compassionately you know name— most of us know fatigue, exhaustion, and burnout.
Often, we humans hold this fatigue in our bodies — muscles ache, inflammation swells, our gut gets cranky — or as Dr. van der Kolk, a psychiatrist specializing in trauma says, our bodies keep the score. The experience of my own embodiment bears witness to this keeping score. My background in neuroscience reminds me that it makes a lot of sense. Emotions are more than thoughts and feelings they also exist in our bodies. In a resource we’ll discuss in our Wednesday study soon, the twin Drs. Nagoski write in their book called Burnout about how “Just about every system in your body responds to the chemical and electrical cascade activated by emotion.” Our emotions and stress are not confined to some disembodied mind. We too are incarnated; we are in the flesh; we are embodied. Exhaustion and fatigue are embodied experiences.
We know what it is like, as the gospel says, to “[have] no leisure even to eat.” We get breakfast on the go, work through lunch, and have dinner dash to our door. Generally, we humans have a limit to what we do and give and take in without rest and rejuvenation. I do not have to work the muscle of my imagination very hard to think of why Jesus invites the apostles to “come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” That sounds like the good news of the gospel to me. I don’t know about you, but for this introvert going away on a boat to a deserted place that happens to be beautiful with Jesus sounds like heaven.
And arriving at there… and discovering that what I was going away from has hurried there on foot arriving ahead me and is now great crowd in need of compassion sounds like not heaven. Truth? That sounds exhausting.
And in situations like that, most of we humans experience what is called by psychologist’s compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigues is very real. We see it in our news and media cycles. We are moved with compassion for those who are vulnerable and getting sick with breakthrough covid. We moved with compassion for those who died in the condo collaspe in Florida, for the people of Haiti, and Cuba, and South Africa, and Germany and Belgium, for the victims of extreme heat in the Northwest and gun violence. And, so much more. The news and media move on rather quickly. We— unless it hits home for us— also move on. For us, compassion fatigue is very real. Generally, we humans have a limit to what we do and give and take in.
And what is the good news of the gospel is that God does not. The compassion of Jesus Christ does not fatigue. When in our gospel Jesus is arrives not to a desert place but to a great crowd in need “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Those whose bodies have kept the score, are met with the healing. The unwavering compassion of God in Jesus Christ is for all. God’s compassion is not some disembodied thought. God is incarnated; in the flesh; and embodied in Jesus Christ. Compassion — for us and especially for God— is an embodied experience.
Our English word for compassion has Latin origins of patri meaning suffer, and cum, meaning with: “suffers with”. And so, to say that Jesus has compassion is to say that he experiences the depths of the agony and suffering of the human condition. Compassion requires emotionally embodied labor. (no wonder it can be fatiguing for us).
Now, in the Greek, the verb for compassion comes from the root spalangchna which is the very guts of the body. So when the gospeller speaks about Jesus’ compassion, he is describing this gut wrenching, bowl yearning, deep emotional response that Jesus has for the people. Have you ever had that feeling in your gut, in your body? Like when your stomach churns a little bit, or you feel that pit. Compassion.
Now, in the Hebrew, the word for compassion is rachamim and it refers to the womb of YHWH. Yes, you heard me correctly... the womb of YHWH. Yes, much to the dismay of many male translators who are quite vested in a patriarchal view of God, God is both inclusive of and beyond all genders. And compassion, rachamim, refers to the womb of YHWH. Is there still profound pain and suffering in compassion as one is kicking about in the womb and being born, oh yes. And there is more to compassion than just suffering with. When we understand that compassion is the movement of the womb, then we recognize compassion as an utterly powerful, deep, intimate, life-creating and sustaining connection. So when Jesus sees the people and has compassion for them-- he will surround them, and nourish them, and sustain them, and his body and his blood will bring about their body and their blood, and he will give them life. The compassion of God is more than the suffering on the cross on Good Friday, it is also the womb-like creation of life from depths of the tomb on Holy Saturday. Compassion is suffering with. Compassion is gut wrenching. Compassion is movement of the womb and it is ultimately life giving.
In Luke’s Gospel (6:36) we are reminded for “be compassionate, as your Father is compassionate.” And it is worth the work the muscle of our holy imagination to also say “be compassionate, as your Mother is compassionate.” And the good news is that we are not God, and so my siblings, may we rest when we need our rest so that we do not get the compassion fatigue that is so contagious in our world today. For we are created in the image and likeness of a God is who compassionate and we too are sent out into the world to be compassionate.