I read a great blog post by Sarita Hartz about vicarious trauma. You can (and should) read it here.
Vicarious trauma happens when missionaries and humanitarian workers listen to (and/or witness) the suffering of others on such a regular basis that they begin to burn out, question their beliefs about the world, and grow emotionally numb.
It’s more nuanced and complex than that, but you get the gist.
My first thought after reading through the symptoms was, yep, I’ve got that.
Then I thought about it some more and realized how good it felt to know I wasn’t alone.
I’ve worked with the poor for over a decade – and I’ve always enjoyed my work – but this past year has been the most difficult.
My job had become the exact description of the causes of vicarious trauma. In fact, one component of my job involved sitting and listening to several heartbreaking stories, one after another, a couple nights a week. Sometimes it added up to about a hundred stories of misery each month; stories filled with problems that I could never solve.
When I listened to these stories, I filled out a prayer card for each person. During the week, I’d pray over those cards.
I knew I was in trouble when I picked up the stack of prayer cards and couldn’t read one without my heart and brain switching into low-power mode.
So I went on vacation.
A week later, I came back rejuvenated and ready to get back to work.
But after about a day, the numbness returned.
Which really sucked, because I sincerely loved the people I got to pastor.
I didn’t realize it at the time but this emotional turmoil was probably an underlying reason I quit my job. That was nine months ago, and I’m still healing.
I work with the poor everyday, and I don’t want to do anything else. But I do have trouble concentrating, sometimes I have to force myself to be compassionate, and I have a lot of sleepless nights.
What if the reason myself and others experience the negative symptoms of vicarious trauma is because we’ve bought into the lie that God and suffering are incompatible?
We hear stories from people who suffer extreme hardships and our hearts can’t reconcile those stories with our false image of God.
Maybe Christians need to think differently about suffering.
A verse that changed my life is Romans 8:18:
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
Think about that verse for a moment.
Then read the preceding verse:
“… and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (v. 17)
An inheritance with Jesus comes with suffering.
It’s fully expected.
There’s no way around it.
If we’re privileged enough, we can insulate ourselves so that the suffering of this “present time” isn’t so loud that it bothers us.
But according to the bible, the road to God is a road of suffering.
This is a HUGE subject that I want to talk about more in the weeks to come, but I’ll end today’s post with this:
We aren’t called to avoid suffering, but to endure it.
It’s the path to glory.
And it’s easier said than done.