Two young fish were swimming when they met with an older fish. “How’s the water today?” he asked. The two fish looked at one another and swam on. After a while, one fish turned to the other and asked, “What is water?”
This story was part of a speech given by a philosopher, David Foster Wallace, to graduating students. The idea was to inspire the students to think beyond their own perspective and experience, to question things and be curious. This idea has been used to illustrate the work I am involved in; seeking cultural reform in an organisation that is overwhelmed. In large organisations, we can become so disheartened by or, sadly, accustomed to the things we see around us that over time we stop seeing them. We can stop questioning why things are the way they are, how we might change them, or what we can do differently. There is a reason for this: to protect ourselves from the feelings that come with seeing the brokenness and inhumanity all around us. The story of the fish can remind us to look, really look, around us and live ‘a compassionate life’.
The ‘blindness’ experienced by the fish can also develop in us as Christians. The Bible highlights Lot’s experience of Sodom and Gomorrah, saying, “…that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard” (2 Peter 2:8). Is that our daily experience? We can become oblivious to, or ambivalent about, the sin and suffering around us. We may even deliberately try to ‘switch off’ from others’ suffering when it becomes too much. This can make it easier to walk past those who are homeless on the streets or to turn off the news when it becomes overwhelming. We may find different justifications for our inaction and try to suppress the guilt we feel for not responding to someone in need. Psychologists call this phenomenon ‘compassion fatigue’, and it is very real.
There are two types of compassion fatigue. One definition is, “the experience of any empathetic individual who is acutely conscious of societal needs but feels helpless to solve them” (Psychology Today, 2021). More of us may be able to relate to this definition, particularly now, when the sad news and loss feel never-ending. Another definition relates to those in professions that lead to prolonged exposure to trauma and stress, where the person’s role is to provide “care, empathy, concern, and understanding by supporting the [spiritual,] mental, emotional and physical welfare of others” (Johnson, 2020). So, whether in the mission field, the workplace, or in stressful periods, such as we are experiencing now, we may find ourselves running low on compassion. In more extreme cases, we may be completely burnt out and exhausted. It is so important to recognise this in ourselves and others, and to seek the Lord’s help.
In those times when it is hardest to look outside ourselves, we need to look up and lean on the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, “the spring of living water”
I sometimes wonder, if Lot was tormented in his soul by the sin around him, how much more distressed must the Lord Jesus have been as He walked this earth? There were times when Jesus openly wept for the consequences of sin (Luke 19:41; John 11:33-35). He was moved with compassion by the needs of those around Him (Matt 9:36; Matt 15:32; Luke 7:13). The Son of God made sure He took time away from the crowds, with His heavenly Father; “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). Those precious times in prayer would have strengthened and prepared Him for meeting the needs of the multitudes. Perhaps our difficulties in seeing the ‘water’ around us are because we do not follow Jesus’ example as much as we should. Some of the Lord’s servants will pour themselves out to the point that they have no resources left. Others will think that the problems are too big, and the fight is too hard, and will therefore focus on themselves, their family, or their sphere of influence. Some will distract themselves from sadness by becoming ‘busy’ or finding something ‘lighter’ to focus on.
Another answer to the question of ‘What is water?’ may help to change our approach to compassion fatigue and the sin and suffering around us. The apostle Paul quoted a Greek philosopher as he spoke to the people at Mars Hill saying, “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). He explained that God is nearer than we think. When we really look, we can see our heavenly Father’s hand in everything around us. Paul also states that our God “is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6), and that Christ is “before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). So, rather than feeling lost and defeated when we see the pain and suffering around us, we can look for the Lord’s working, we can ask for His strength to help to reach out to those in need and seek His restoration when it feels too much. The Psalmist speaks about the person who meditates on the law of the Lord being “like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither” (Psalm 1:2-3). Just as the Lord Jesus did, we can withdraw from the pressures on our time and emotions and seek His strength. This is not when we have tried everything and are close to collapse, or occasionally dipping our toe in the stream for relief. Instead, it means being ‘planted’ or ‘rooted’ in Him (Colossians 2:6-7). In those times when it is hardest to look outside ourselves, we need to look up and lean on the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, “the spring of living water” (Jeremiah 2:13). When we have been refreshed with His strength, we will be more ready to see, pray for, and reach out to those in need around us.