Compassionate Courage

I began my helping journey at a very young age: nursing fallen baby birds, rescuing gophers from gun-toting country boys, saving mice from neighbourhood cats and befriending lonely children. I was in grade four when pictures of the Viet Nam War hit the media. I remember overwhelming feelings of helplessness, sadness and despair as I internalized the horror of what I was seeing. Who was helping the abandoned children? I hounded my mother looking for an acceptable explanation. There wasn’t one.

That same year, I saw a TV news story about an impoverished First Nation’s community. The children appeared listless, bedraggled and sick. The announcer made a comment suggesting that Christmas would be a sad day for these families. The thought that Santa wouldn’t deliver gifts to "poor children” sent me into a frenzy. Within a few short weeks, I had organized a toy drive and Christmas delivery to the community in question.

What possessed me, at nine years old, to take on a task that adult members of my community did not? What propelled me as a helper then? What drives me now? I have spent the last 45 years as a helper: first as a child philanthropist then as an adult therapist, parent, foster parent and family caregiver. To the extent that I am able, I have worked on and resolved childhood issues. I have learned to address codependent behaviours by practicing boundary setting, self-love, and self-care. Nothing has ever altered my internal push to help.

Without a doubt, I have experienced joy, excitement, pride and so many personal and professional rewards along the way. But I’ve also felt discouraged, traumatized, fatigued and fed-up. For short periods of time, I have left my profession. I have always felt compelled to return. I know I am not alone in this. My helper friends share similar histories and feelings.

What compels us to do what we do and keep doing it? After exploring this question with others and within, I believe the answer begins with the word compassion. Compassion is defined as a deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it. The quality of compassion is not exclusive to helpers however. Many people are aware of suffering and wish they could do something about it. But they don’t.

What makes a helper different? People often say to me, "You must be a special person. I could never do what you are doing.” I think to myself, "Of course you could do what I am doing. You choose not to!”

When one person out of a crowd jumps into the water to save a drowning child, it is not because he or she is special. The hero is the person who becomes aware of suffering, feels compelled to help, then chooses to move compassion into action. Like heros, helpers demonstrate compassionate courage – the willingness or ability to disregard fear and do what needs to be done despite the risks.

Everyday, firefighters, police officers, medical professionals, teachers, social workers, family caregivers, animal care workers, therapists, community support workers, environmentalists (the list is endless) choose to face fear and charge into battle – putting compassion into action. Are helpers special? I don’t think so. But I do wonder where our compassionate courage comes from? Why do some of us choose to help despite the risks to our own emotional, physical, spiritual and financial well-being? Here I go again – trying to find answers where there may be none. Maybe what I really need to do is learn to accept and celebrate the person I am. Compassionate courage – what an amazing gift!

Karen Zemanek, MEd., CCC is a Certified Compassion Fatigue Therapist. She offers information, education and support for care/service providers wishing to prevent or address compassion fatigue symptoms. Call 250-741-1979 or visit