Suffering is Not Your Duty


The wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alberta, are reminding me of my smallness.

I can barely fathom the loss, heartache, and trauma of one family losing their home—let alone an entire community of 80,000 evacuees at risk of this loss.

News like this often has a debilitating effect on me. In the age of quick fixes and easy remedies, I sometimes become paralyzed whenever a problem seems too big for me to solve. And right now, there is a legion of problems in the world that are too big for me to solve.

The widespread damage from the Alberta wildfires is one situation that renders me hopeless. Then there’s the divisive and controversial U.S. election, which exposes such flaws in the American political system that seem irreparable to me. Last year’s attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad remind me of the confusion, despair, and randomness of evil. The 11 million people killed or displaced by the civil war in Syria leaves me without much understanding or hope at all.

As much as I wish I had the power, I can’t stifle natural disasters. I can’t fix political corruption. I can’t stop terrorism or war or other forms of manufactured injustice from happening. But because of that insatiable desire for me to do something, I do the only tangible thing I know how: I take it on as my own burden.

Yes, sometimes I can be the classic bleeding-hearted martyr. I live vicariously through other people’s sorrow and trauma. I ruminate in their pain. I am crippled by grief and numbness and eventually move into the stage of what experts call empathy burnoutcompassion fatigue, or even secondary trauma.

It’s not healthy.  And yet it’s so easy to be that way in the social justice world, where suffering is considered a virtue … where the level of adversity we experience in our vocation is central to our identity … where the depth of the emotional toll we take on is the measurement of our worthiness.

In my world, it’s a bunch of broken souls trying to shoulder the burdens of other broken souls. It’s where pain and suffering for the sake of the cause is implicitly demanded, but it’s neatly packaged as empathy, loyalty, morality, and—in some circles—spiritual purity.  It’s what makes us a “good enough” justice seeker, non-profit worker, volunteer, missionary, Christian, human.

Paradoxically enough, people like us expect ourselves to become surrogates of other’s pain without also allowing ourselves to take on their joy. We have ourselves convinced that the universal human experiences of happiness and humour, play and leisure, boundaries and rest somehow don’t apply to us. A life of service is a life of suffering.

The problem with trying to take on other people’s burdens is that it’s not empathy at all. It’s pity masquerading as altruism—and it leaves all of us worse off.

Yes, compassionate people are able to be fully present in the pain of others. But, as Buddhist roshi Joan Halifax points out in a TED Talk, empathetic people are resilient people who can move fluidly into the tender space of compassion and then back again to their baseline. They hold space for another person’s distress without being attached to it.

But how do we bounce back? How do we build that resilience, to be able to say “I am here for you in your brokenness, I am with you in your heartache, and yet I’m going to keep on living?”

Compassionate people know that resilience is a practice, not a natural gift. They learn how to give themselves grace—that the burdens of the world are not theirs to carry. They practice self-compassion, know that battling against the darkness doesn’t eliminate them from living in the light. They believe they are enough as they are, even without the prideful demeanour that uses self-sacrifice as a badge of honour.

Ultimately, all of that comes from a place of humility. And that’s what I find to be hard—because it demands that I confront my finiteness and accept my limits. It means admitting that I can’t save everyone. It reminds me to lean into the arms of community, rather than into the glamorous tyranny of doing it alone.

Knowing all of this, I still feel small when I read the news about the destruction of the Fort McMurray wildfire. I still feel overwhelmed by the stories and images and statistics. I still feel my donations and prayers are insignificant. And that’s okay—because I am small in the face of cataclysmic destruction.

But as I’m inundated by the bad of this world, I need to actively listen for the beautiful. To identify how such ugliness and devastation can also draw out some deeply moving acts of kindness and humanity.

As the wildfires in northern Alberta rage on, it’s the generosity of Syrian refugees in Calgary and Edmonton I need to remember: people who are raising money for the wildfire evacuees in the truest form of solidarity and gratitude, because they know what it’s like to be ripped from familiarity and forced to leave everything behind.

It’s the outpouring of love from hundreds and hundreds of strangers throughout Ontario and Alberta who offered to send a young woman free wedding dresses for her imminent wedding, because she lost hers in the fire. Or the community outside of Edmonton that quickly pulled together a ceremony for a couple that was supposed to get married in one of the hardest hit parts of Fort McMurray. Or the $13,000 raised through crowd-funding to help a young couple who lost all of their baby supplies in the fire and were forced to evacuate just before giving birth.

Darkness is ever-present. But so is beauty. So is grace. So is hope.

The burdens of natural disasters, political injustice, civil unrest, and refugee crises are real, but they are not mine to carry. Nor will they go away if I live in a state of perpetual grief. I am not powerless, but I am also not the world’s savior. And if I try to live without boundaries, nobody wins.

Nobody wins if I burn myself out trying to be everything to everyone all the time. Nobody wins if my answer to pain is pain.

Seeking justice for the long haul means giving myself permission to live a purposeful and beautiful life. I cannot separate joy from service—because they always function best together.