Social scientists have been studying compassion fatigue since at least the 1980s. The term refers to the psychological state of feeling numb or uncaring as a result of an overload of caring. Workers who commonly experience compassion fatigue include social workers, nurses, teachers, child and adult protection workers, hospital chaplains, and veterinarians. You can probably think of many other jobs that would make workers’ sense of compassion fade away over time. Maybe you have even had that kind of job yourself. For example, I worked for a law firm that specialized in bankruptcies. At first, I loved the job, and I really liked my co-workers. But having to cope with the tragedy of bankruptcy week after week, month after month, proved too much for me. The problem was not that I stopped caring, or that I had compassion fatigue to the point where I became numb and uncaring; the problem was that I couldn’t stop caring. Every week, a grown man would sob in my office. Every day a person would call and beg for relief from creditor harassment, e.g. constantly being called at work and late at night. People who had loans for mobile homes and who had defaulted would come home from work to find their clothes and the kids’ toys thrown out on the lawn, and their home gone. The suffering was too much for me to bear, and so after two and a half years, I called it quits, moved to Iowa, and went back to college.
My experience makes me wonder if social scientists might need to tweak the term a bit. Feeling fatigued and exhausted because of constant compassion is different from being at a point where the compassion valve is simply turned off. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.
There was a heating oil spill at our home in April, 2018. A chunk of ice fell off the roof and severed the line to the fuel oil tank, which sits just outside of the house. About 160 gallons of fuel oil sprayed onto the cabin logs and flowed into the crawlspace beneath the house. My spouse and I were/are devastated. We had to move out of the house, and we are living in marginal circumstances in a rental cabin that is dangerous for our blind dog, and which has steps that are so steep that I cannot use them to do laundry, medicate the cat (he lives mostly downstairs), or clean the cat litter. I have spent hours and hours on the phone and meeting in person with the insurance company, mortgage lender, attorney, tax accountant, oil spill responders, dirt contractors, and construction companies. Everyone has been super sympathetic and kind. Everyone, that is, but the insurance adjuster.
You know those insurance ads on TV where a smiling insurance adjuster calms an upset client? For example, Flo (Progressive), driving in a rainstorm to reassure her client who has just had an accident. Not our adjuster.
At first I thought he was just a jerk. A patronizing mansplainer with bad customer service skills. He’s aggressive and rude. He constantly interrupts me when I am talking. He told me that the insurance company will not cover the mitigation costs outside of the footprint of the house. The state of Alaska requires that clean up, and the best bid I’ve gotten so far is $78,000. When I told the adjuster that we could not afford to pay this, and that the state would require the cleanup, he told me I should get a loan from the bank to cover the cost. When I told him that the credit union refused to lend money because the property was contaminated (remember the oil spill, the reason I am on the phone with you, I asked?), he just directed me to the exception clause in the insurance policy.
Just a jerk, right? Just an uncaring guy who has no concept of how much our home means to us. Clueless about how to talk with a woman who has had to abandon her home. A mean man with bad customer service skills. But then, I realized something. He takes calls all day long from people like me: people whose lives are turned upside down by loss. Fires that destroyed their homes and killed their cats. Trees that toppled into houses and smashed them to bits. Floods that saturated homes and ruined treasured family mementos. And fuel oil spills.
In our second call, the adjuster told me that he had been doing this for twelve years. He knew what he was doing, he said. He had experience with just this type of claim. Now I am beginning to understand that he may not be a jerk after all. He may just be exhausted by having to deal with upset customers like me, and so he has figured out a way to cope.
Earlier this week, another contractor came out to the land to work out a bid. He is a friend, a former student of mine, a super nice guy. He said something innocuous to me, I don’t really recall what he said, but I just burst into tears. That tiny bit of kindness was just overwhelming for me. So now I am beginning to understand that perhaps the insurance adjuster strategically deploys a non-compassionate style to avoid customers’ expression of grief and upset. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism for him, a way of avoiding burnout. Perhaps he has just turned his compassion valve off.
Or, he could just be a mansplaining jerk.