To See the Face of God: Compassion Fatigue and Secondary Trauma
“Take my hand / I’ll lead you to salvation / Take my love / For love is everlasting / And remember / The truth that once was spoken / To love another person / Is to see the face of God.”
-Les Miserables (2012), “Epilogue”
When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and bow down, all of them, at the entrance of their tent. Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then he would return to the camp; but his young assistant, Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the tent.
Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
I’ve been thinking about writing this since April. In April, my year-long homeless outreach internship with Open Table was ending, and I was about to transition to my current job doing data entry for the homeless outreach team at Park Center, a mental health nonprofit. I loved my team and my organization, but I was feeling utterly drained, heartbroken, and empty. For five years, I had been interning, volunteering, and training myself up to be a homeless outreach worker. It was my passion and my calling. And now, as I was ready to begin finding a job in the field, I was already burnt out. Done.
Most outreach workers only have a work lifespan of two years before burnout, it is often said. I’ve been burnt out on a lot in my life for the past few years, and was beginning to get more energy at the beginning of my internship. However, in the span of the year, I saw the face of God. And it killed me.
I think about Uzzah and the countless other Israelites who, whether filled with presumption, curiosity, or hunger to see the face of God, touched the Ark of the Covenant or opened it to look inside. Seeing God killed them. I think about Moses talking with his old friend YHWH, saying, “But I’ve been in your presence all this time. Why can I not now see you?” And YHWH replies, “You cannot see my face and live.”
I did all my best to practice the boundaries I was trained to have. But I was not trained on how to have internal, emotional boundaries. I am an emotional sponge by nature and I was not trained in how to moderate my compassion. I was not trained in how to leave the brokenness of the world on the streets and not take it home with me. I was not trained in how to leave the stories I heard and witnessed at the door to my house. I was told I should, but was never given the instructions to the switch that would turn off my bleeding heart. I did what the ministry taught me–to love fiercely, to accompany people into the depths with them like Jesus did, to suffer like Jesus did. I saw the face of God in the Other, the Outcast, the Misfit, the Prisoner, the Patient, the Unhoused Person. I saw the face of God, and I loved her. And it killed me.
I remember in high school throwing around statements like, “I feel so close to God right now,” or, “I feel so far from God.” Or, “I really saw God today!” Sometimes I feel tempted to use this vocabulary because it’s the only words that seem to fit, even though I know they wouldn’t mean the same thing they meant then. Because I’m now putting emotional distance between me and the margins, I am therefore emotionally distant from where God is, in my mind. How can you feel “close” to the God who reveals Theirself in the poor and marginalized when you can’t spend time around vulnerable people without feeling overextended and empty? This is all my faith has been. Every sermon I’ve ever preached has been on how we see God in our homeless neighbor, in the person we’d rather cast out to a prison cell, in the dying patient. It’s not that I don’t believe this anymore. It’s that I believed it so much that it has decimated me; instead, I realize that the call to the margins is as dangerous as I was told it was. I was called, but I was not equipped as the Church told me I would be. (Cue the youth pastor: “God doesn’t call the equipped, God equips the called!”)
So, I’ve sought refuge in this new job I’ve taken. I work in a team of amazing, beautiful homeless outreach workers. I work behind the scenes, enter and manage the data we are required to collect by our grants, do menial tasks like the weekly outreach laundry and cleaning our donation room, and clean out the files and databases to ensure quality and HIPAA compliance. I work at a computer in an office where I avoid people most of the time; it’s a job a lot of people woudl hate, but I actually really love it. However, even here I experience a degree of what I have now come to understand is not burnout, but rather compassion fatigue and secondary trauma.
For example, the outreach workers have to record notes in an internal database of all their encounters with clients–much like I had to do as a chaplain in a hospital last year. Part of my job is taking these notes and re-entering them in several databases weekly for grant compliance. Most of the time the notes are short, like when folks are brought in to take a shower, do laundry, or fill out paperwork. Some times however, they are long narratives of emergencies, disputes, explosive episodes, traumas, or crimes. While I don’t know these clients personally or know these exact scenarios personally, they are incredibly familiar because I’ve been there before in a different time, a different place, with different people (or even the same people, on occasion. Nashville’s homeless outreach world is small.)
I had to stop reading the notes because I would feel myself begin to gently dissociate from my work desk and return to those moments of walking frozen streets at midnight looking for bodies, warm or cold. Those moments of fleeing drunken arguments in parking lots. Those moments of having my compassion thrown back in my face because I tried to set a boundary. Those moments of feeling very unsafe. Those moments of hearing other people’s stories of trauma so vividly that they stayed with me late into the night. This is secondary trauma– “Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. Its symptoms mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” (Of course, I also had to stop reading notes because HIPAA!)
I’ve come to a point where I resist making friendships with folks on the streets, resist engaging with new clients, resist looking people in the eyes on the streets. It’s like I can’t see the actual person in front of me because I can only remember the dozens of folks on the streets who died, who abused help, who broke trust, who abused themselves, who were murdered, who hurt me. And this seems to tragically erase the millions of beautiful moments I have experienced on the streets of people looking out for each other, surrounding each other with support in dire circumstances, of genuine community. It’s like a reflex- instead of a beautiful child of God with a unique experience, all I see is a million outstretched hands and broken bodies and experiences I’ve heard and seen before on repeat. This is compassion fatigue– “It is characterized by deep physical and emotional exhaustion and a pronounced change in the helper’s ability to feel empathy for their patients, their loved ones and their co-workers. It is marked by increased cynicism at work, a loss of enjoyment of our career, and eventually can transform into depression, secondary traumatic stress and stress-related illnesses.”
So, I stop reading the files. I stop engaging with folks for the most part. I hear that time heals, so I watch the days fly off the calendar waiting for it to get better. I’m finally graduated from Vanderbilt. On one hand, it was a relief to be done with what was a mostly disappointing experience. On the other hand, I realize that I don’t have divinity school to distract me from the unsettling feeling that I don’t have an identifiable calling anymore if I’ve decided I can’t do homeless outreach anymore. I’ve mourned that and I’m okay with it after all. But what do I do now? I find a routine to stick to as I wait for the healing to come- eat, gym, shower, work, eat, practice, eat, sleep. For the first time in twenty years, I’m not a student! Hurray! But seriously- for the first time in twenty years, there’s nothing scheduled for me to build towards. I knew I was setting myself up for a quarter life crisis by not taking time off between degrees, but I was not prepared for this.
I don’t know what to do now. It’s tempting to throw myself completely and tirelessly into roller derby, but I realize that if I do that I will burn out on the one thing that gives me joy and energy right now. I can’t afford to lose it, and not coping with my compassion fatigue/secondary trauma/burnout/Everything Bad In My Brain by retreating is not the solution.
I’ve got some ideas- maybe vision boards, maybe a retreat, maybe more church, maybe coffee with trusted vocational advisers, maybe therapy again. What I crave most, however, is just a hint. A hint of the divine, a breath from the Spirit, a whisper in my wilderness.
“[Elijah] went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
-1 Kings 19:4-13
I think one of the things that drew me to the church in the first place in high school was the notion that God had a plan for me. Divinity school and process theology has kind of shot that determinism in the ass, but I really kind of need that right now. Maybe I do need a loving God who has a plan for me. Maybe I do need a Resurrection of All Things at the end of time, an incoming Shalom, a Restoration. If not for at the end of times, then at least for me right now. I need resurrection. I need a whisper in this wilderness.