Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Shopper's Compassion Fatigue

"Compassion fatigue" is a term applied most often to caregivers who have what most of us would call burnout. (Clinically, compassion fatigue is considered a secondary traumatic distress disorder as opposed to the type of stress that the term "burnout" usually implies.) Doctors, emergency workers, police, firemen, clergy, and relatives who are caregivers for seriously ill family members can all be affected by the relentless needs of the people they are trying to help. Who wouldn't run out of steam when serving in such a demanding role? But it turns out that the public as a whole can be affected by it, too.

An report by Jeffrey A. Dvorkin about the excellent "All Things Considered" coverage after Hurricane Katrina found that while many listeners appreciated the fine work of the journalists, other listeners said, essentially, enough already with the devastation. Those listeners had hit the wall and simply couldn't muster another iota of compassion, even though there's no doubt that they were intellectually aware of the continuing reality of the horrible situation. It wasn't just Katrina that had worn them, and all of us, down; it was 9-11, the tsunamis, Iraq, Darfur, and so many other crises, including local issues.

I wonder if we're at risk of a sort of shopper's compassion fatigue, too. How many of us are trying to balance of the demands of just getting through the day with our desire to make thoughtful purchases? A simple grocery list can become a veritable minefield of potential decision-making challenges. Organic? Toxic chemicals? Fair trade? Health considerations affected by fat grams or carbs or allergic ingredients? Manufacturing processes? Recyclable packaging? Child labor? Vegetarian or not? Vegan? Employee benefits by the manufacturing company or the store where we're shopping? And at what price do our choices become unaffordable? Enough already with the thoughtfulness! At some point all you want to do is be able to make dinner.

So, let's take this moment to remember that it's okay to give ourselves a break. No one can possibly sort through, let alone assimilate, so much consumer information and then always make flawless buying choices. It's overwhelming.

Instead, let's take a more reasonable approach that will help you (and me) stay calm. First, let's remember that eliminating the unnecessary stuff in your home is a big mood booster. Not having to deal with a cluttered environment gives you breathing room, literally in your home and figuratively in your head. An uncluttered mind is better able to make informed choices.

When making those informed choices, the only rule is, "Do the best you can." If it's too much to tackle every issue that you know is "important" to you and your family's health and the survival of the planet (talk about pressure!), pick just one. And maybe pick just a small portion of that one issue that you'll work on. Maybe you'll decide to buy organic peanut butter. Period. Good for you!

Every tiny step in the right direction helps move us all forward. Let's just be careful to avoid that big wall up ahead.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob


sans auto said...

I enjoy your posts. I don't know that I agree with this one. Of course small changes are better than no changes, but that's not going to make as much of a difference as desired and you end up discouraged... just as you were when you decided to change. It's like weight loss. People want to lose weight, but are unwilling to give up the foods that make them heavy. If you want to see a different outcome, you have to make a substantial change. Moderation may make you feel good, but it doesn't lead to substantial change.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Thanks. Glad to know you're a regular reader.

The question of moderate vs. substantial change is a challenging issue. Your weight loss analogy is very interesting, however at least there is a more clear-cut goal in that case, i.e. a specific number when you step on the scale that indicates you've lost enough weight to be considered the "right" size.

But, assuming someone is willing to make substantial life changes that affect them personally and/or affect the environment, how much change is "enough?" When do you hit your "goal weight" when evaluating your consumer habits? It's tricky.

I have a feeling that the majority of us slide back and forth all over the place along the way to making wiser consumer choices. Sometimes our energy levels are high and we're on top of our game; sometimes we're just worn out and go for the easy choice rather than the more demanding one. I chalk it up to human nature, but I have faith that we'll stumble forward, trying our best to do the right thing as often as we can.

People may have valid reasons that they don't do everything that they'd "like" to do (I'm not including being oblivious to the problems at hand as a valid reason); I'm one of those people! So even though you are right that moderation doesn't necessarily lead to substantial change, I'd still like to encourage moderation, or any small effort, if that's the best a person can offer. I think a world full of people practicing moderation would be a big improvement over our current over-indulgent society.

Like I said, this issue is tricky. Thanks very much for your thoughtful input!