Winterizing the Compassion Fatigue. Again.



Chatting lightly about weather is considered the tiniest of small talk, unless you live outside the urban bubble. We take it more seriously out here on the prairie.

There was ice in the water troughs this week. It’s dark early now, and the sun is cooling. The flies are slow and stupid, but still with us. The horses and donkeys have grown their winter coats and just like usual, I haven’t added a single hair.

Are there flies in heaven? I mean just tell me now. (I notice I’m a bit testy.)

For a start, I cleaned the tack room, updated the first aid kit, and pulled out the winter blankets, just in case. Then I mucked out my own mind for a while. It was sorely needed.

There’s a term used in the caregiving world: Compassion Fatigue. The physical expression of that term has to be a long deep sigh.

It isn’t an accidental condition, like getting a cold. It’s a term we first heard of in medical caregiving professions, but it soon spread to animal welfare workers and many other helping professions. The shoe fits a lot of us.

I like this definition. It’s broad and it includes real life: “Compassion fatigue is the cumulative physical, emotional and psychological effect of exposure to traumatic stories or events when working in a helping capacity, combined with the strain and stress of everyday life.” –The American Bar Association. (Who would have thought?)

It’s when a few layers of normal things like work and financial responsibilities and world events meet up with fear and loss and exhaustion, along with the awareness that you aren’t getting younger. It feels a bit like doubt, only sticky and dark. Your horse might be the first one to mention your change.

There’s always a fence to mend before the weather changes, and in that quiet work, I indulge my voices. Yes, I hear voices. It’s my parents, both gone for decades now, who come back to nag me for my foolishness.

My father did not suffer idiots. Well into my adulthood, he wanted me to “grow up,” which always meant act like him. After all, the world is cruel and no place for ridiculous idealists. Idealist is my word for it; like most bullies, his terminology was more coarse.

My mother’s approach was practical; she pleaded with me to be more “normal”; to keep my head down. Always reminding me that life was a veil of tears. My mother knew the safe comfort of giving in and suffering silently.

Here’s what I like about replaying the old tapes–I remember who I am. I remember my particular rebellion–it hasn’t changed. I choose to care. In their eyes, I cared about things that were like gravity; things that weren’t worth fighting because they were never going to change. You can’t save them all, so don’t even try.

My steadfast response: For the ones I help, like this relic of a donkey, all is saved.

Now I’m preparing for my hay delivery by pulling out pallets to clean out the musty hay underneath. Change is inevitable. That’s a given, but the passing of a season is like an arm around your shoulder, urging you to scurry along. Okay, okay.

I admit it. It’s been a rough summer. I don’t think of myself as a worrier, but I do keep my mind busy. It’s a choice to be aware; choosing to care is a kind of prayer to the world. What some people see as a weakness, I am most certain can be our greatest strength: To stay vulnerable in the face of darkness. To hold a vision, against the odds. It’s our superpower.

Perhaps compassion fatigue isn’t the worst thing. It means you have compassion as a pre-requisite, and that requires a special kind of strength in the first place. It’s knowing inside that you have enough to spare and then taking a step forward when a door to possibility opens. It’s the best in us. Against skeptics, fly that flag high and proud.

I drag the tank heaters to the barn with a smile. Hail damage got us a new roof and I upgraded. I know the animals will be a bit more snug this winter. Everyone’s weight is good, the llamas are in full fleece, and I’m considering growing some hair between my toes. It seems to work well for the dogs.

Experts say that the remedy for compassion fatigue is self-care. It’s the art of showing yourself the same compassion you have for rescue horses, stray dogs, and your dear ones. It means letting yourself be the stray dog that you welcome into your own heart. To come in out of the cold, welcomed by the person you were meant to be.

My spiritual beliefs rest with nature. It’s my test of true; I’m comforted that gravity works on all of us. I trust the natural laws. I trust that the monotone prairie is just resting and that the sun’s warmth will return. Nothing dies; it transforms. And as butterfly-vulnerable as we can be, the more compassion and growth are possible.

Sometimes there is a sunset like tonight. Just one beret-shaped cloud perched on Pikes Peak, Jupiter is alone in the southern sky, and a peachy pink and orange gloaming soaks down to the tall grasses; the world is filled with unbearably precious beauty. This dusk coats good things and bad things as equals, as we choose. Being vulnerable means that I can have this infinite moment of perfection.

Meanwhile, back in the house, there’s a new Corgi foster dog here. He’s just a year old and the survivor of both shock collar “training” and canine Prozac. He’s a trainwreck, and maybe part of me is, too. But we’re going to bark and chew our way through this, under the prairie moon.

 

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro
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