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Mares: Compassion Fatigue

John Locher
Associated Press
Loretta Root mourns the loss of her home, Aug. 9, 2018, in Redding, Calif.

Seems like we’ve barely reacted to one wave of bad news these days when the next one breaks over us – reminding me of the '60's musical and film Stop the world I want to get off!

And while we can’t do that, of course, we must admit that trying to respond effectively to disasters on a large scale, especially from a distance, can be frustrating. It's as if we had only mercurochrome for a six-inch wound.

But the poet John Donne famously said, "No man is an island." So in an effort to relate to the California wildfires, I inventoried my own meager fire-borne experiences. All together, they hardly equate to the devastation in California, and I've never been threatened by a forest fire, but two friends' houses were once leveled by fire.

While they escaped injury, a grand uncle of mine died in a mining camp fire a hundred years ago. And I myself was caught in a flash gasoline explosion in the Marine Corps. The pain was acute for weeks but there were no lasting scars.

Often we react to disaster by simply observing "There, but for the grace of God, go I." Some of us send messages of sympathy to friends and family in the affected areas – mostly by emails these days. And many of us donate to disaster relief agencies for immediate assistance because we still can think locally and act globally.

A climate scientist at Georgia Tech University says, “What we’re seeing today is making me ... calibrate not only what my children will be living but what I am currently living.” So I take heart and fraternal pride in my brother’s recent efforts to argue for action on climate change at a meeting of oil companies in Houston - and I've increased my support of organizations like Bill McKibben's

Empathy can indeed be exhausting. But John Donne also offered some wisdom about the need to resist giving in to compassion fatigue when he wrote, "This only is charity, to do all, all that we can."

Curiously, all this talk about fire and smoke reminds me of something positive: that the sweet odor of burlap burning in my beekeeper smoker is the surest thing I know of, to calm and pacify my bees.

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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