“The World Is Too Much With Us”: Work, Ancestry, Joy

I remember in 1995 when trauma expert and himself a Viet Nam veteran, Charles Figley, published his then-new book, Compassion Fatigue. It was a novel concept to us then. Some trauma therapists were calling the same phenomenon “vicarious traumatization:” essentially infecting one’s own heart and nervous system with perhaps “too much” horror and pain and too much empathy. I remember gobbling up that book. Clearly, this compassion fatigue was an occupational hazard that we had to have the humility and the restraint to consider in our idealism and our zeal. I remember hearing a presentation around that time given by a gifted, young child therapist who had worked in the children’s trauma unit of the local general hospital for roughly a decade. She had recently, out of necessity, converted her entire practice to teaching and consulting, having reached a critical mass. She simply could not bear to hear even one more story about brutalized or abandoned little ones. Routinely awakened by nightmares and then racked by anxiety at the very thought of going to work, she felt she had no choice but to make the radical, if disappointing, career change. 

Although I was convinced that it “could never happen to me,” queen of endurance that I considered myself to be, when Figley offered his first compassion fatigue training workshop, my hubris did not stop me from hopping on the plane to Tallahassee, Florida in a hot minute. Admittedly, the prospect, even the slim possibility, perhaps scared me, as I heard and read about young, idealistic, inspired, and intelligent clinicians having careers, not to mention joie de vivre aborted or cut short, traumatized by their work. I don’t remember much about the workshop. I admired Figley (And was most struck by how the little town of Tallahassee was swept up in the furor of high school football that weekend. I’d never seen anything like that!) Even all these years and decades later, I have never lost my caution and respect for the subject of compassion fatigue.


Avid bookworm that I am, as is typical for us, I have my favorite authors. High on my short list is the brilliant and prolific Isabel Allende, who, even at her advancing age of 81, still seems to produce a new blockbuster each year. I buy them all sight unseen and am rarely disappointed. Her most recent book, The Wind Knows My Name, surprised me, being an exquisitely detailed historical novel about the Nazi Holocaust. Having grown up on a steady diet of Holocaust stories, I rarely seek out books on the subject. This one has me glued. Allende’s depiction of Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” reminded me of how my parents both described that nightmarish event well before I could understand what they were talking about, brought back flashback memories of the literal nightmares I remember having when I was two. I did not really know what I was dreaming about, but I do remember being spooked already at that early age, which I can confidently place because of where we were living at the time.

Decades later, in 2015 and 2016, some of what was being bandied around in the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election had my father sitting transfixed, semi-catatonic on the couch, eyes like saucers, in unmoving flashback-like reminiscence of some of those early days in Nazi Germany. It had seemed astonishingly unreal, and was again, that intelligent people were listening, let alone believing what was being said. He may or may not have been aware of how frightened he now was, but it was frightening to me to see him that way. When George Floyd was murdered in 2020, it was I who was frozen. It seemed I could not think of anything else for some time. I remember having to at least try to counsel my clients, let alone myself, to regulate our news consumption. It was all so chillingly compelling. Trauma micro and macro seemed to be, actually was, everywhere.  

In Allende’s book, Samuel, an eight-year-old boy, was sent out of the country alone when his parents were still able to get him safely out of Austria before they themselves were carted off to concentration camps or exile. Many children were transported by boat or train to sympathetic countries where families took them in and kept them safe. I grew up hearing the stories about my mother; she must have been about ten by then, sent alone to England on a train, where she was welcomed and housed by the Clark family, famous for their Wallabee shoes. The Clarks were heroes in our family. Allende’s book awakened imagined images of the little girl, my mother, alone, stoic, most certainly terrified, desperately lonely, and confused, with no choice but to be patient and still, without even the comfort of a familiar language. After reading about young Samuel, my sleep was invaded by an intense barrage of powerfully lifelike dreams about Mom that stayed lodged in my waking mind through much of the following days and left me feeling grief and guilt about my many complaints about her. And although I was perhaps haunted by not only memory but broad and painful reflections, I could not wait to get back to my book the next evening. Books, movies, news, work, and even conversations with friends and loved ones: trauma can readily take over the airwaves if I let it.  If I am not mindful, that is easy to do. But it is not sustainable, or rather, it is the royal road to burnout, as well as being not much fun.


I have the good fortune of having an enlightened partner who insists on packing me off to Hawaii at least three times a year. Granted, the Hawaiian Islands are a locus of tragedy at the moment, but hopefully will not be for long. It is, for me, a happy place of such beauty: glorious flowers and plants, birds, fruit and fish, sky and sea, and great peace. I am grateful to have such a refuge to go back to again and again. Miraculously, it is the one place where I can sleep. But it is also essential to strive to find my balance at home, to make sure and create enough time and space for beauty: art, music, time with loved ones, spiritual renewal, bread and cheese. To not let time for love and pleasure slip away. Allow me to remind you as I remind myself. Don’t sweat the small stuff; give peace a chance. Make time for rest, community, beauty, and joy!

Today’s song:


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