Woman Typing

 Essay

At the Compassion Consortium, we celebrate diversity. We believe every being brings a unique view to the community that we co-create when we gather together. So, each month, we publish an essay which provides a view from our community, a slice of one human's journey of compassionate living. 

April 2022

How belonging to a community helps us mitigate compassion fatigue (and realize other helpful benefits)

By Rev. Sarah Bowen, cofounder of the Compassion Consortium
Penguins FE April 2022.jpg

It’s finally Spring, and all week, squirrels have been digging in our yard to find their stashes. Yesterday, I watched one digging in my hosta bed. When their nose came up out of the bed it was pitch black—and I realized yet another compassionate change I could make here in our yard… stop using dyed mulch. I’ve been thinking a lot about the life emerging here on the tiny acre on which my husband and I live, and how I can best be “in community” with all beings. 


And so, this month, I also find myself reflecting on thriving and growth in relation to this community at Compassion Consortium. This month marks our 1-year anniversary of Sunday Services! We’ve been delighted at how many of you have asked how you can officially become a member, and in March we rolled out our membership program. In case you did not see the announcement, I’d like to take a moment to talk about why I think membership may be helpful not only for the sustaining of this community and its growth, but also provide you with some useful personal benefits.


During my seminary years I read a lot of fascinating research about the benefits of religious or spiritual affiliation, as part of my thesis on the intersection of spiritual values and animal issues. For example, one study found that belonging to a religious or spiritual group increases one’s commitment to volunteering and charitable giving. Other studies have shown that membership increases our prosociality—meaning altruism, cooperation, and caregiving. And studies have also revealed that people who belong to spiritual or religious communities report higher levels of life satisfaction, greater personal happiness, and fewer negative psychosocial consequences of traumatic life events.


It's that last one I want to focus in on today. Many of us who are animal lovers or advocates or activists often report high levels of compassion fatigue, secondary trauma, cognitive dissonance, and moral injury.


And there’s some fascinating research that says spiritual practices and the support of a community can help us mitigate the response we may have when exposed to the trauma of others—including animals.


One of my favorite people researching in this field right now is Laura van Dernoot Lipsky. In her book Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others she identifies 16 warning signs that signal we might be experiencing trauma exposure response. Read the list below and think about whether any hit home for you.


•    Feeling helpless and hopeless
•    A sense that one can never do enough
•    Hypervigilance
•    Diminished creativity
•    Inability to embrace complexity (right/wrong thinking)
•    Minimizing
•    Chronic exhaustion/ physical ailments
•    Inability to listen/ deliberate avoidance
•    Dissociative moments
•    Sense of persecution
•    Guilt
•    Fear
•    Anger and cynicism
•    Inability to empathize/ numbing
•    Addictions
•    Grandiosity: an inflated sense of importance related to one’s work (If I don’t do it, no one else will)

We may feel some of these on a daily basis, or they may come and go as we get periods of intense work alternated with rest. 


Laura van Dernoot Lipsky suggests that we need to take a frame of trauma stewardship. This means we reflect on the wholeness of our experience, understanding why it is that we come to do this work, how we are affected by it, and how we make sense of and learn from our experiences.


Trauma stewardship does not mean that we “suck it up” or we prove how strong we are. It means we recognize this work can be heartbreaking and lonely and frustrating. We keep the inquiry about our work open, and at the same time we recognize our capacity and our need for rest from it.


That is one of the fine balances we try to keep here in our Sunday Services. How do we talk about the important work we do in ways that do not activate ourselves or others in our community so that we can all rest, restore, and rejuvenate ourselves? What level of specificity is useful when talking about violence and exploitation, and when should we generalize for our mental well-being, knowing that we need not preach to the choir, as they say? Can we recognize that our community has different capacities on any given day for taking in heartbreak? And perhaps most importantly, can we make sure we include wonder, and laughter, and joy – including cheeky songs like I picked last month about whale poop, or the techno dance hits that Erika picks for us to end our service with?


Van Dernoot Lipsky suggests that social support is essential to managing compassion fatigue, as is a daily centering practice. We here at the Compassion Consortium agree. And that’s why each service we engage in multiple practices which are grounded in mindfulness, meditation, and prayer. Our hope is that you integrate these types of practices into your life on a daily basis and they are helpful to you.


With our new membership offerings, we want to kick that up a notch. We want to support you in deepening your spiritual life, and in return, have you help us deepen our ability to grow the work of this community in the world. 


Here’s how it works:


For those of you who would just like to continue to attend services and events, that’s fine, you can continue to do so free of charge, or by making a donation when you register for the service, or by clicking on the donation link we provide at the end of every service.


For those of you who would like to commit to being a member of the community, you can sign up to become a “Belonging Member.” This gives you access to the private online platform we’re developing to help you connect with others throughout the month. You’ll also get an invitation to our annual Members event. In return, you’ll donate $5 each month—or as I like to say, you’ll skip one overpriced latte. You just sign up once on the website, and that will happen by recurring donation. 


For those of you who want to deepen your spiritual life and your ties to the other people in this community, we’d like you to consider becoming an “Engaged Member.” In addition to an invitation to the annual Members event and the online networking platform, you’ll also get a monthly spiritual reflection email. And, you’ll be invited to join us for a monthly Practice Circle, on the third Monday of each month at 8 pm ET where we’ll spend 30-45 minutes engaged together in spiritual practices followed by time to unpack the experience. Led by one of our co-founders, you’ll explore the world’s spiritual traditions, and learn how to further integrate these practices into your life to combat compassion fatigue and to encourage deeper spiritual connections. And the session will be sent out on video replay in case you can’t attend at that time, or life intervenes.


Finally, if you’d like to become a Sustaining Member and have input on programming and help pay operational costs, just contact us, as sustaining memberships are available.


We’re excited about the potential of these new programs, and we hope some of you are too. If you have any questions, just reach out to us at compassionconsoritum@gmail.com


In closing, thank you for everything each of you does to help the Consortium thrive.