Empathy over Courage

Bravery is a rare commodity. Many people who think they’re being brave only dare to do so from within a like-minded group, however small in number, and when they are genuinely in the minority spend more energy on protesting that the majority from which they’re excluded is unfair and unjust than on doing anything useful to change it. It may be true—knowing human nature, often probably is true—that one’s opposition is no exemplar of justice and fair-mindedness. But we’re seldom willing or able, ourselves, to make a cleanly balanced assessment and especially, to act wisely and compassionately on it either. We’re generally convinced that anyone else having anything good means less goodness for ourselves, and that that is a terrible thing.

What impresses me more than bravery, real or imagined, is seeing anyone express real empathy for others through their own beliefs, lives, and actions. I tend to doubt that we’re capable of doing or even wanting very lofty things, but I also think that small doses of empathy will go ever so much further than any amount of derring-do and action-figure heroics in bettering the world and the human condition within it. Daring to let another person be richer or more privileged than me or to have the last word, even when I’m fairly sure I’m smarter, closer to correct, or more deserving requires quite a different sort of courage than running into danger in anyone’s defense or their stead.

But treating others with such respect seems to me far more likely than argument and defensiveness, self-protection and fear, to get anyone to trust and respect me in turn. So shines a good deed. The unselfish willingness to accept another person’s reality as valid even when it might cost me something significant is a kind of courage I dream of having, hope to learn.Graphite drawing: Reach Down to Raise Up

8 thoughts on “Empathy over Courage

  1. Hi Kathryn,

    This post is really interesting and raised something that has always niggled away at me. It’s the word ’empathise’. I think it’s almost impossible to empathise with someone unless we have experienced what the other person is going through. Counsellors sre supposed to empathise with clients but they cant really. One example close to home is addiction. No counsellor on earth knew what was going on with me and yet all the counsellors I eventually came across who were themselves recovering alcoholics understood me and were able to give immediate, true empathy helping me on the path to recovery. Just my thoughts 😊. What do you think?
    And courage of course apoears in many guises. I think ai dould write an essay! 😄 xx

    • I have always had the sense that the difference between sympathy and empathy was that the latter required me to either have actually, genuinely had the experience someone else is having, or at least be able to fully put myself in his or her place in my imagination enough to feel the same emotions and experience it as the other person would do; sympathy, on the other hand, is being able to feel sorrow or compassion for the other whether or not I can really understand or imagine what’s troubling him/her. I’ve heard sociopathy described as the absence of empathy or even the ability to empathize. I would, perhaps, extend that idea and say that I think of an inability or unwillingness to feel or express sympathy as a characteristic of self-centered people, a much broader application to be sure, and one that might be a little unsympathetic itself! Yes, I do think there are endless essays encrypted in the many aspects of both empathy and sympathy.

      • Thanks Kathryn! I expect if one is a counsellor then they develop the ‘skill’ of empathy in the way you suggest. I did a counselling skills course as part of attempted diploma but it wasnt for me; the most difficult part for me was empathy and I would beat myself up over not being good enough at it. But I dont think I gave it anywhere near enough time to develop. I quit after one year. xx

        • No, my dear, you never quit it at all; you’ve been developing it over a number of years, both through experience and through your natural inclinations that were allowed to surface and grow. In your sobering journey, you *became* able to tap into your inner compassion, and it now shines through in your writing and correspondence online, as I suspect it does in daily life among your companions. I know that your guidance through your blog posts and letters is an invaluable source of both sympathy and empathy for a great community of readers who have either experienced some of the same trials as yours or can find analogous help in your life story and the gentle, gracious way you now share it. I hereby grant you the mantle of Counselor par Excellence *Honoris Causa*.


  2. Great post, Kathryn! 🙂

    Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing.
    (1 Peter 3:8-9)

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