Beauty / Health

In Australia’s bushfire crisis, is compassion fatigue a thing?

The catastrophic bushfires here in Australia have been burning for months. On New Year’s Eve, disastrous conditions emerged. Mammoth, uncontrollable fires blazed, and hundreds of people were evacuated onto the beaches of the South Coast, trapped of any alternative exit and forced onto boats to escape the fire that tore through entire towns. Amid smoke and ash, in our worse than ‘worst case’ scenario, sparks ignited the nation and globe’s empathy triggers, and after months of impending horror and lost cries for help, it feels that we are finally taking steps to reckon with the climate crisis as a collective.

For many, it felt as though this was the first the world was hearing of the crisis unfolding in Australia.

At the end of a decade in which we’ve consistently been warned about the effects of global warming, it seems the world has finally broken through a cloud of apathy and woken to a climate change-induced natural disaster of historic measures.

Suddenly, amidst all the horror, it feels as though it is all happening at once. As though these bushfires, which have been raging since September, have emerged into global crisis level over the course of a single day. Perhaps we can lay blame on the slow and outwardly apathetic response of our Federal government. Or a system of disinterest defined by prejudicial attention to US or northern European-related issues. Or social media, where we learn about global small-scale horrors daily, and are desensitised to events that don’t affect us directly. In a time where compassion fatigue plagues most people who consume media, and feelings of helplessness are two-fold when we’re also paralysed by decision making, it is only natural that our reactions now, after the worst case scenario has been surpassed, are in reckoning with deep sadness, panic, and hysteria.

“I think compassion fatigue is definitely playing a part in what’s happening with the fires,” says Ash King, psychologist at The Indigo Project.

“I have a feeling that it’s more a feeling of collective helplessness, because what’s happening is such a huge thing it feels really out of control.”

“As much as we care so deeply, a lot of the anxiety is coming out of the fact that people feel like there is not enough that they can do to help, or that their input won’t have enough impact.”

For those of us who aren’t directly affected by the fires and are in positions to help – it’s easy to feel distressed that the support we can provide might diminish as our time is taken by work and other aspects of ‘normal life’, while we continue to witness the horror unfold and our precious country burning despite the donations pouring in.

“I’m always wary of discussing the depletion effects of various forms of empathy,” King explains, when I express noticing our empathy feels stretched thin when global disasters happen.

“The very idea that it’s something we can run out of, automatically makes is feel as though it’s a depletable resource.”

For many, it felt as though this was the first the world was hearing of the crisis unfolding in Australia.

At the end of a decade in which we’ve consistently been warned about the effects of global warming, it seems the world has finally broken through a cloud of apathy and woken to a climate change-induced natural disaster of historic measures.

Suddenly, amidst all the horror, it feels as though it is all happening at once. As though these bushfires, which have been raging since September, have emerged into global crisis level over the course of a single day. Perhaps we can lay blame on the slow and outwardly apathetic response of our Federal government. Or a system of disinterest defined by prejudicial attention to US or northern European-related issues. Or social media, where we learn about global small-scale horrors daily, and are desensitised to events that don’t affect us directly. In a time where compassion fatigue plagues most people who consume media, and feelings of helplessness are two-fold when we’re also paralysed by decision making, it is only natural that our reactions now, after the worst case scenario has been surpassed, are in reckoning with deep sadness, panic, and hysteria.

“I think compassion fatigue is definitely playing a part in what’s happening with the fires,” says Ash King, psychologist at The Indigo Project.

“There is emerging evidence saying that things like willpower and empathy don’t run out and it’s more our understanding of how those work that makes us think that they’re going to reach the bottom of the barrel.”

“We have this idea that our empathy and relationships are transactional. It’s like you’re giving something and keep giving, and then it all goes away. Real genuine connection and relationships are a two way process. We are giving and receiving. When we can be with someone and show them empathy, then we are also growing our connection with that person. ”

Our outrage and upset is valid and important. Channelling it to insight real change and care is more important, for our future and for those who are not always first in line to receive support. King offers that doing this needs to extend to a long-term level, instead of moving on as we are so often forced to do before the next disaster hits our news feeds. “I think it’s really important get clear on the things that you, as an individual, value, we all have things that make us feel passionate. Find the things that light you up inside. Is it possible to fix all of the world’s problems alone? Of course not. But it’s really brave and noble to actually take a look inside yourself and try to connect with what you value while you’re alive, and how you can help support that as an ongoing effort for future generations.”

It was just last month that the global response to our bushfires inspired little faith in our collective will to empathise and act accordingly. The first days of this new decade, however, have reignited a sense of determination within when witnessing humanity at work. Do something small and personal, or get loud. “It’s nice to think about growing with empathy instead of being drained of it,” King notes. “It’s an incredible quality that is very specific to our evolution … It’s gotten us to this point. All we need to do is to look around us and witness people using their resources to bring awareness to people and the environment suffering at this time. We can all do that, the more we use our empathy the more it will give back.”

We can only hope that the support continues to come to aid of those who need it most and that in the face of the climate disaster that is upon us, conversations continue to be had and positive change is made. Use your outrage as battle cry, your body as a number, and your perspective as your vote.

PHOTOGRAPHY Sam Hendel
FASHION Bridie Gilbert
MODELS Sofia Mechetner and Dorit Revelis @ DNA Models
TALENT Oren Knaan
HAIR Yaniv Zada
MAKEUP Shirley Weiner
PRODUCER Ira Inkerman for Filmotronic Films Israel
STYLIST’S ASSISTANTs Archie Grant, Lydie Harrison and Luiza Cirico