Why compassion is courageous

Society often seems to have a strange concept of what it means to have courage or strength.

We see this most clearly in the behavior of some politicians. Sometimes to bolster their own reputations they will scapegoat or discriminate against those in more vulnerable circumstances – people on social security, those with minimal rights or refugees and people seeking asylum.

At school this would have been called being a bully. “Pick on someone your own size” is the kind of refrain you might hear if a bigger or older kid lashed out at someone smaller, younger, or otherwise less disposed to violence.

But in the arena of politics (and many other sectors besides – old-style boardrooms, for example) this kind of behavior has become at best accepted and at worse valorised.


Partly because it satisfies an unaddressed human need – the need to feel safe. By creating the impression (and let’s be very clear – it is only an impression) that the targets of abuse, defamation, or ridicule are the cause of a society’s problems, the leader in question can generate a sense, firstly, of fear and then of loyalty because of their apparent willingness to address that fear. They might also claim that they are “saying the unsaid” – therefore increasing the sense that what they are doing takes guts.

Of course, in most instances, they are not doing anything at all. Closing borders does not stop people becoming refugees or seeking safety. Cutting social security support does not end poverty or generate higher paid work. Reviling protestors does not stop climate change.

Their aim is not to resolve the issue but to devolve the responsibility. It is not to look into the heart of suffering and alleviate it but to harness and exploit it.

Compassion is the opposite.

To feel hurt, pain, and suffering – that takes courage.

To seek to be with that suffering (whether your own or another’s) takes huge strength.

And to really act – to get down into the weeds of an issue and make decisions that you know might be initially unpopular (increasing public spending or calling for a compassionate response to the needs of refugees, for example) takes bravery.

Compassion is courage and courage is compassionate. Anyone can walk away, shrug their shoulders, or blame societal problems on individual failings. But that isn’t how we will resolve the climate crisis, end poverty, or stop discrimination. That is why we need compassion.

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