Compassion Fatigue


Dear Driver of the Honda Van,

honda van webI felt compassion for you when you skidded to a halt on the side of the road, just up the hill from my house. I was worried that you would have to abandon your car and walk 7/10th of a mile to the Home Depot for shelter. It was after 10 p.m. and below 20°F when you came to a stop in front of Mike’s mailbox. I was worried for you, as you stood alongside your van—its headlights trained on the wreckage that was blocking your safe passage—and you considered your options. Clearly, you didn’t have many options.

My compassion turned to irritation when, after several minutes, you got back into your van and attempted to drive down the hill. I recognized that I was experiencing compassion fatigue, like the 911 operator who had refused to send help after another SUV, an enormous Denali, spun several times before slamming into two collided cars on the other side of the street. I was worried about you, but a little less than before, when I thought you were smart enough to accept your fate and abandon your car overnight.

You skidded slowly to a halt on the edge of my front lawn, without hitting the SUV already parked there. Then you got out of your van to survey your situation. My dog went wild. She had been enjoying her front row seat to the drama that occupied our street all afternoon and evening, and her excited barks had definitely contributed to my compassion fatigue. I ushered her to bed in the rear of the house and allowed my frayed nerves to settle.

Compassion soon resurfaced, as I realized that, although I was still worried for you, I was also relieved that your car was parked and undamaged. Now you could safely walk down the hill across the lawns, avoiding the icy road, to the Home Depot.

It was only in the light of day that I saw what you did instead. Somehow, you managed to get enough traction on the icy hill to move your car, in reverse, and back away from the SUV. Then you foolishly attempted to drive across my lawn and my neighbor’s lawn, past the already six cars piled up on the side of the road, to the bottom on the hill. But you lost control of your car on my lawn and, sliding on the icy surface of the powdery snow and soft earth below, you sideswiped the SUV, making yours the seventh in the string of collided cars.

five collided cars webfive collided cars street view web










This is only a theory, of course, because I neither saw nor heard your final attempt to escape my street. I can only assume that your earlier observation of the damage from your vantage point at the top of the hill led you to conclude that you could bypass it; or, perhaps in your desperation to get home, you believed that you could cheat fate.

After photographing the wreckage and recounting the events of last night to a friend, I found myself berating you for poor judgment. But from inside my warm house, where I am now sipping my coffee and composing this letter, I discovered that writing about compassion fatigue may be a better cure than discussing it.

It will likely be another 24 hours before the ice melts and the 12 cars are cleared from my street. The sun is shining, but the thermometer displays a chilling 20°F.  Still, as I write these words, I feel a surge of compassion for the drivers that were stranded here last night. I hope that you all spent the night somewhere safe and warm.


Loss of Dignity

I am reclining in the dentist’s chair, waiting for the anesthetic to kick in, when I become aware that I am drooling. I’ve been in the chair less than ten minutes.

Who drools? I think.

Teething children drool.  My nephew, as a toddler when his first molars erupted, walked around with a drop of drool hanging from his chin. He was adorable.

Sleeping people drool—especially if they are mouth breathers—and sometimes they snore, too. Not so adorable.

I wipe the edge of my lower lip with my sleeve. My loss of dignity is profound.

I recall a teaching of Maimonides about restoring lost dignity to a rich person who has fallen on hard times. I learned it decades ago, from a professor who required us to memorize entire chapters of the Mishneh Torah. My memory of the words is vague, but not my essential understanding of the text.

“According to what the poor person lacks, you are obligated to provide him: If he has no clothes, clothe him…even if this poor person was accustomed to riding a horse, led by a servant before him, you buy him a horse and provide a servant to run ahead of him.”

I recognize that my lack of dignity in the dentist’s chair is a minor setback. Others suffer greater losses in this office and in emergency rooms, where they must have rotten teeth pulled because they cannot afford adequate dental care.  But loss is personal. My loss of dignity cannot be measured and compared to another person’s, because it is, by definition, mine alone.

I pull my phone from my back pocket and text my friend Dan, who possesses an encyclopedic mind of rabbinic sources. I’m looking for confirmation. Did I find comfort in the partially forgotten words of a medieval sage?

Dan responds immediately: “You remembered fine. Hilkhot Matanot Leevyonim 7:3. I’ll email you the text.” Then he sends several humorous texts concerning the dignity to which a rabbi of my stature is entitled. Laughing, I realize that I can’t feel half of my smile.

Later, I am forced to raise my left hand, to signal the technician that I need to sit up. I begin to gag as she takes an impression of my lower teeth, and I narrowly avoid spitting all over her.

“It’s only six minutes,” she reassures me. “Hold your jaw still and try to relax.”

Without moving a muscle, I repeat seven words in my mind:  I have dental insurance. I have teeth.  I imagine riding through town like a queen—with no horse and no servant—no crown on my head, but five of them in my mouth.

And in less than six minutes, I regain my dignity.


Tree Hugger’s Holiday


My name is Pamela and I am a tree hugger.

My affinity for trees blossomed in the years that I attended Haverford College, where I would sit under the majestic Beech in the quad, knowing that I’d found my happy place. It’s also entirely possible that I was born a tree hugger and was drawn to Haverford by the sprawling Osage Orange adjacent to Magill Library. The entire campus is an arboretum, designed by English landscape gardener William Carvill in 1834.

As a confirmed tree hugger, today is my holiday.

In the Jewish calendar, today is the festival of the trees, known in Hebrew as Tu B’Shevat (15th of Shevat). According to the sages who lived in the land of Israel in the first century, this is the time of year that trees’ sap begins to rise, a harbinger of spring. It is also my 22nd wedding anniversary.

Although we chose our wedding date using the secular calendar, I was delighted to discover that it corresponded to Tu B’Shevat, and not only because I knew it would be easier for my spouse to remember our anniversary.  We decided to serve traditional Tu B’Shevat foods—dried fruits and almonds—along with wedding cake for dessert.

ketubahOur ketubah (marriage contract) is a circle, adorned with intertwining vines and flowers and handwritten by Detroit artist and calligrapher Lynne Avadenka.  After I photographed it this morning, I stood gazing at it for several minutes, contemplating the circular form that encloses the words of a dead language. These Aramaic words were read aloud as David and I stood together under the huppah (wedding canopy) on Tu B’Shevat and sealed our commitment to create a family rooted in Jewish tradition. Just as the rings in the trunk of a tree demonstrate its age, the circle around our ketubah represents the vitality of our relationship.

Today this tree hugger celebrates the beauty of trees—the jumble of roots that grounds them to the earth; the expanse of branches and leaves that offers creatures shade and protection; the oxygen they release into the air that allows us to breathe deeply.  Today I also celebrate an enduring love that was first nurtured among the Redwoods of northern California and continues to mature like the mighty Oaks of north Georgia.