Refueling After Compassion Burnout. ~ Andrew Cvercko

Via elephant journal
on Feb 6, 2013
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Source: via Cansu on Pinterest
Source: via Cansu on Pinterest

This starts, like many of my stories do, with a very young me reading comic books.

When I was about eight, I was reading a Superman comic, one in which Superman was explaining to Lois Lane that he is very selective about using some of his powers, such as super hearing and x-ray vision.

If he were to use them all the time, he explained, he would constantly be overwhelmed by the amount of people dying and suffering that he could not reach in time to save.

If he were he to stay completely open, he would have to abandon any hope of a personal life in order to be as available as possible, still continuously be aware of people around the world and throughout the universe dying, because he chose to rescue someone else instead.

Needless to say, this was very heavy shit for an eight-year-old.

Superman isn’t the only super hero who has felt overwhelmed by that work cut out for him; both Jesus and Buddha had similar moments.

Jesus famously fled to the mountains to get away from the crowds that wanted him to heal them of afflictions both physical and spiritual.

Buddha was ready, after his enlightenment, to stay under the Bodhi tree for the rest of his life because he felt no one would understand what he had to teach, and that there was too much dust in the eyes of all the beings throughout existence to even try to explain. But Superman is the one who is always stuck in my mind.

Over the years, I’ve viewed Superman’s hesitation to be aware of everyone’s suffering in different ways.

When I first read about it, I was concerned (admittedly, purely fictional) that people live and die completely at random, depending on whether or not Superman happened to be paying attention. Later, I noticed how even with an entire multiverse, constantly one super villain away from explosion, he always had time to help out his friends with whatever minor issues they had (he once cleaned his pal Jimmy Olsen’s apartment at super speed so Jimmy’s date wasn’t ruined, seriously).

It wasn’t until I worked in a drug rehab though, that I understood it. All of us—whether comic book character, religious founder, or anything else—experience compassion burnout. Despite our best intentions, humanity continues to bleed, rape, murder and cry. And it hurts.

Working in a rehab, I see the same people come in again and again, make the same promises, and leave to go to the same places to take the same drugs. Occasionally someone makes it, but more often than not their name eventually materializes in stark black and white on a newspaper page—listed among the rest of the dead—and they escape the cycle that way.

Faced with this, I have seen many of my coworkers struggle and decide the answer is to stop caring. They harden their hearts and make their senses impervious to the issues that addicts face. Some make some sort of ethical misstep and leave the field by being escorted out.

Others drift along, not caring but still going through the motions like a ghost that descends the same staircase every night for no other reason than that is what it does.

And why bother? For all of us, for every person we touch, a hundred won’t be reached.

How do we live in an universe where we are constantly surrounded by these overwhelming numbers?

We’ve all heard the affirmations and the sound bites about being the change we want to see and how to the one we help, it matters.  But reality returns with enough conflicting data, enough news of people being terrible to each other and to themselves that the most logical option seems to be throwing our arms up in surrender.

And yet we don’t—for whatever reason—we try to keep going, to keep loving each other and helping each other.

There is something either inside of humanity, between humanity, around humanity or possibly all of the above, that promises otherwise—that it does all count for something and it’s not all in vain.

And occasionally, we even see evidence of it. Despite the unlikelihood, extraordinary things happen, refuel, renew and allow us to rededicate. Sometimes, just sometimes, the tired clichés rise above being shared across a thousand Facebook pages and become real.

When Buddha decided to sit under the Bodhi tree until his natural death, the story goes that a god descended from the heavens and begged him to teach for the sake of the humans, animals, gods and everything in between that had “only a little dust in their eyes.”

You see, though there are beings that are so deluded that nothing Buddha said would be heard or processed, some might actually benefit from his teaching; they would benefit so much that the normally aloof Buddhist gods took notice.

Our task is to love everyone, but not necessarily, to help all of them. Instead, we can only touch what we can reach, and hope for the rest to be touched by others reaching out from other directions.

There is another Superman comic I read once.

Lex Luthor, Superman’s arch rival, has found someway to gain Superman’s powers. He goes on a murderous rampage before he stops in his tracks and, fully utilizing the super senses that come along with the territory, begins to lament to Superman that this is all there is—us trapped together with nothing but each other for help.

He begins to cry and surrenders.

In the end, all we have is each other.

Like I said, sometimes Superman is pretty heavy shit.



Andrew CverckoAndrew Cvercko lives in Winsted, Connecticut. He works at a drug rehab, teaching mindfulness meditation to people recovering from drug addiction. He spends his free time corresponding with people in prison on religion and meditation, exploring this strange planet we find ourselves on, and thinking too much.



Like elephant I’m not “Spiritual.” I just practice being a good person on Facebook.



Assistant Ed: Josie Huang
Ed: Bryonie Wise



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4 Responses to “Refueling After Compassion Burnout. ~ Andrew Cvercko”

  1. kmacku says:

    I'm sure you've heard of this before, but this illustrates the opposite viewpoint from the overwhelming numbers:

    A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.

    She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”

    The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied,

    “Well, I made a difference to that one!”

    The old man looked at the girl inquisitively and thought about what she had done and said. Inspired, he joined the little girl in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved. – adapted from the Star Thrower by Loren C. Eiseley

    Hope that helps, and good luck on the journey!

  2. wendi says:

    Andrew- I love the parallels you draw, here. I work in grief support at a hospice agency, and I have moments of being overwhelmed that I can never do enough- moments when I realize the magnitude of pain that's in the world and my own helpless sense that there's so little I can do. Those are the days I remind myself to get on my cushion and those are the days I try to find a few moments in the counseling room for some asana. Because you're right, without refueling, we have nothing to give. And, really, connection can happen with or without anyone else present.

    Thank you!

  3. Kate says:

    Hello Andrew,
    I too work in an alcohol and drug rehab. in New York. It is now 15 years but there came a point 3 or 4 years in that became a turning point for me. I was overwhelmed and stressed out completely feeling like a salmon swimming upstream. I had to make a choice, either to leave or to shift. With the help of my meditation and yoga practice ( as well as pure instinct to self preservation!) I turned my personal expectations around. I realized that if I could be happy just being the planter of the seed that may or may not take, then I could go home satisfied that I had done the best I could. As Director of Admissions I did see the return of some over and over. We limited that to three times in most cases. However, I have also seen those repeaters get sober and become counselors themselves. So we never know which time will be THE time.
    Hang in there and just keep offering your best..saving even one starfish is quite a blessing!

  4. LInda says:

    I also work in the addictions field at a residential rehab. We had a client discharge two weeks ago and overdose 3 days later. No matter how much intellectual understanding exists when something like this happens it is still a gut wrenching sucker punch.

    Thank you for the following quote I will share it with my colleagues ~

    Our task is to love everyone, but not necessarily, to help all of them. Instead, we can only touch what we can reach, and hope for the rest to be touched by others reaching out from other directions.