There’s a clinical name for what Apathetic Idealist and many of us are feeling: it’s called compassion fatigue. Psychologist Charles Figley defines compassion fatigue as “a state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically and emotionally, as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress”. Symptoms include behavioural changes (becoming easily startled, a reduced ability to remain objective), physical changes (exhaustion, anxiety and cardiac symptoms) and emotional changes (numbness, depression, “decreased sense of purpose”). It is an important framework in professions such as nursing, where over-exposure to trauma can lead to health problems for the nurses and worsened outcomes for patients. But it can and has been applied to the general population, too, especially when we are saturated with pleas for attention.
Though the term is relatively new, the idea of compassion fatigue has been around for centuries. As historian Samuel Moyn recently put it: “Compassion fatigue is as old as compassion.” And the anxieties that come with our awareness of compassion fatigue go back just as far. According to Moyn, the 18th-century philosophers and moralists who “rooted ethics in sentiment and sympathy” were simultaneously troubled that “devoting oneself to an ethic of exposure and sensitivity to others’ suffering (or of engagement and action to relieve it) might lead to a numbed ethical sense”. It was partly this worry that emotional fatigue could undermine our morals that led Immanuel Kant to abandon sentimentalism for an ethics based in reason – a more objective alternative, at least in theory.