Book Review-A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives

Individually, compassion and courage make sense. Compassion is the awareness of the suffering of others and the desire to minimize it. Courage isn’t the absence of fear but the willingness to overcome it. Putting these together, we discover a subtle fear in being compassionate and what can be done to develop the courage to do so. That’s what A Fearless Heart is about – developing the courage to be compassionate in the face of circumstances, thoughts, and feelings that make that difficult.

Magic Penny

It was years ago now when I heard the song for the first time. I was in a grade school choir room, and the song was our next learning. It was an odd song. It was about giving something away and getting more. The first part of the lyrics of this Malvina Reynolds song begin:

“Love is something if you give it away,
Give it away, give it away.
Love is something if you give it away,
You end up having more.

“It’s just like a magic penny,
Hold it tight and you won’t have any.
Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many
They’ll roll all over the floor.”

Most things in life, if you give it away you have less. However, this magic penny – and, more importantly, love – is something you get more of the more you give away. I’ve mentioned before (see The Art of Loving) that there are three Greek words for the word we call “love” in the English language: eros, romantic love; philos, or brotherly love; and agape, which is God’s love or global love. I’ve also mentioned that agape and compassion are essentially the same thing. (See The Book of Joy.) So, what we have in this little song is the truism that, when you demonstrate your compassion for others, you become more compassionate – not less.

In the zero-sum game that most of us live with daily (if someone else wins, then we lose), it’s hard to understand how compassion begets compassion and how our worlds are enriched when we enrich the lives of others. The more that we live our lives for others, the more we get out of it for ourselves.

Put Out the Fire

The Paradox of Happiness

I’ve mentioned before the two goddesses of wisdom (Lakshmi) and wealth (Sarawati). If you pursue wealth, it will run from you; but if you pursue wisdom, wealth will be attracted to you. (I covered the story in my review of The Heretic’s Guide to Management.) A similar thing happens with happiness. When we stop worrying about our own happiness, and we’re focused instead on the needs and happiness of others, we find that happiness comes our way.

Hedonistic happiness is a treadmill requiring increasingly greater amounts of pleasure to feed the same level of happiness (see Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on this). However, value-based happiness driven by our love (compassion) for our fellow man becomes an enduring characteristic of joy. To become happy, we then need to not worry about our happiness and instead focus on the happiness of others.

The Pit of Loneliness

If happiness defines one side of a continuum, loneliness sits on the opposite side. Loneliness is a painful form of suffering where we feel separate and apart from the others that we share this planet with. (See Loneliness for more.) Our compassion for one another helps to bridge the gap that loneliness creates by connecting us.

Empathy means that I understand this about you. Compassion, as mentioned above, is awareness of another’s suffering and the desire to minimize it. Thus, empathy connects us through understanding, and compassion connects us through action. Empathy’s near enemy (explained momentarily) is sympathy. Sympathy is based in understanding but separates by pity. Instead of being, I understand this about you, it’s an understanding that you don’t want to be where the other person is. (See Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism for more.)

Near Enemies

Near enemies is the idea that there are two concepts where one is bad but seems to be the same as a virtuous one. The two seem similar but really operate very differently. A Fearless Heart claims that the near enemy of compassion is pity, but I would refine this, as stated above, to say that sympathy is the near enemy of empathy, and pity leads to sympathy instead. Because I believe that compassion is built on empathy, this is a distinction of degree. Fundamentally, I believe that the presence of pity prevents the connection necessary for true compassion.

Near enemies are responsible for people not desiring a desirable state. Compassion is confused with submissiveness, weakness, or sentimentality. People fear compassion, because compassion isn’t seen as innate part of all of us (see Spiritual Evolution) or as a necessary trait.

Fear of Compassion

On some level, it’s difficult to conceive of someone who would be afraid of compassion. At another, it’s all too easy to see subtle forms of fear in our ability to give and receive compassion. Whether it’s an aversion to feeling indebted to someone else or the queasy feeling that we’re not enough if we need someone else’s compassion, we realize that there are times that both giving and receiving compassion can be difficult.

Paul Gilbert was the first to schematize fear of compassion, defining it as three different categories of fear: fear of compassion for others, from others, and to oneself. He defined this in more detail by articulating statements that we could rate how much we identify each.

  • Compassion for others:
    • People will take advantage of me if I am too compassionate and forgiving.
    • If I am too compassionate, others will become dependent on me.
      • I can’t tolerate others’ distress.
    • People should help themselves rather than waiting for others to help them.
    • There are some people in life who don’t deserve compassion.
  • Fear of compassion from others:
    • I am afraid that if I need other people to be kind they will not be so.
    • I worry that people are only kind and compassionate when they want something from me.
    • If I think someone is being kind and caring toward me, I put up a barrier.
  • Fear of compassion for oneself:
    • I fear that if I develop compassion for myself, I will become someone I don’t want to be.
    • I fear that if I am more self-compassionate, I will become weak.
    • I fear that if I start to feel compassion for myself, I will be overcome with sadness and grief.

Just because you’re afraid of compassion doesn’t make it any less the right approach. By identifying what the fears are, it’s possible to make them smaller.

Teaching Fishing

The cliché is you should teach a man to fish rather than give him a fish. Teaching him can feed him for a lifetime and giving him a fish feeds him for a day. However, this is substantially easier to say than it is to do in many cases. Compassion is a place where our best and highest work creates solutions for the other person that allows them to be self-sustaining in the future and not need any additional help to relieve their own suffering.

This aspect of helping people be more self-sufficient is both critical and often lacking. People who have psychological issues are often prescribed drugs that they’ll be on all their lives, making them dependent and never fully healing. (See Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health for more on the problems with these prescriptions.) Even counselors and psychologists who try to resolve problems with their patients often fail. (See The Heart and Soul of Change and Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more about effective and ineffective counseling.)

A different approach to psychology – and helping people to thrive – is what has been called “positive psychology.” It’s a movement founded by Martin Seligman and one he continues to champion today. Instead of focusing on deficits and gaps, positive psychology helps the patient to see that they already possess the things they need to be happy and to thrive. (See Martin Seligman’s book Flourish and Barbara Fredrickson’s book Positivity for more.) As we’re helping others, we should simultaneously be helping them to see the capacities they have within themselves. (See Motivational Interviewing for some more ideas on how to affirm people in their strengths.)

The Only Way Out Is Through

There’s a belief that people who are calm are in control of their emotions. The belief is that they can keep them at bay and constrain them even in the toughest times. This is a false belief. Emotions that are repressed and denied have a way of oozing their way to the surface and causing havoc. It’s a truer statement to say that people who are good at controlling their emotions just have a better awareness and acceptance of their emotions.

It’s not possible for the rational self (the rider in the elephant-rider-path model discussed in The Happiness Hypothesis) to restrain the emotions permanently. However, with a better relationship – driven by acceptance – there will be fewer times when the emotions will fight to have control. It’s acceptance of the emotions that are being felt, that our rationality can properly assess that we’re not in much real danger – and therefore dramatic actions are not called for.

It can be true that we’re threatened, but, to some degree, we choose what is a threat and what is a challenge to be overcome.

Challenging the Threat

There are two key components of ego-resiliency – which is a goal that everyone has. One of those is the ability to perceive difficulty as a challenge rather than a threat. Instead of looking at the lack of knowledge to do something, you can view it as an opportunity to learn or a challenge to be able to demonstrate that you can do things.

It’s cliché to describe problems as opportunities, but that really is the case. Edison’s work to find the incandescent lightbulb is similarly cliché, but in it rings a bit of truth. Edison’s work wasn’t always a commercial success. From his first patent for a voting machine to his extensive work trying to find alternative sources for natural rubber, it wasn’t that Edison was uniquely gifted to never fail. His unique gift was in his perspective that the things that he faced were challenges and not threats.

Adversity and the Rubber Ball

The other component to ego-resiliency and effective recovery from hardship is the capacity to bounce back from adversity. The agrarian saying is, “If the horse throws you off, get back on.” It’s simple to say, but harder to do – both physically in case of a horse and proverbially in the face of adversity causing a defeat. However, for the most part failure isn’t fatal.

What that means is that, though we may get knocked down and feel like we’re losing or failing, it isn’t permanent. The ability to recognize that the problems aren’t persistent – that they’re temporary and not pervasive – but are localized to one or a few small areas of our life can allow us to understand that adversity can get us down, it just can’t keep us down.

Vulnerability

There’s a bit of vulnerability in accepting that we’re going to get knocked down from time to time. There’s a bit of acceptance in our imperfect and often frail nature to know that we aren’t invincible. While we all intuitively know we’re not perfect, and we’re going to die, and vulnerability is a cloak that we’ll always wear, we seek to deny it from ourselves and from others.

The paradox of vulnerability is that to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we must feel safe – we may not need to be safe, we just need to feel it. To admit our vulnerability, we must accept ourselves non-judgmentally. To be vulnerable with others, we’ve got to trust that they don’t intend us harm. (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more.)

Self-Pity

Like anything, there can be too much of a good thing. Being vulnerable often leads to humility. (See Humilitas for more.) However, if we don’t non-judgmentally accept our vulnerability, we may find ourselves in the pit of self-pity. We may discover that we’re self-absorbed with only our limitations and our faults. We become so focused on ourselves that we can’t see that others have vulnerabilities too.

Self-pity is a form of self-absorption, where our fear and lack of self-compassion have limited our view of the outside world. It’s natural and normal that our focus is pulled towards intense and immediate threats; however, it’s not natural when those threats aren’t real and when they persistently prevent us from seeing the real world. (See The Anatomy of Peace for boxes that distort our perspective.)

Dysfunctional Relationships

It takes two to tango, they say. Relationships necessarily involve two people. While we may believe that we’re the root cause of everything that is wrong in a relationship or lament our poor decision-making that led us to be a part of a dysfunctional relationship, the reality is that one or even a few bad decisions does not poor judgement make. Every relationship has its dysfunction. The real question is what your role is in removing the dysfunction, either by changing your responses or exiting the relationship.

More than any other aspect of our world, relationships is key. Research supports our need for social connection, intimacy, and closeness – and in many areas of the world, it’s getting harder and harder to maintain and build connections. Having self-pity because we don’t have enough relationships or have too many dysfunctional relationships doesn’t help us.

Checking In

Whether it’s alone in a room or with a group of people, one way to be present and shape the future of your relationships with others – and with yourself – is to perform a check-in process. The process is simple but often overlooked. Whatever specific approach you take to get there, checking in has two goals. The first goal is to acknowledge your reality, including your thoughts and feelings, whether they seem reasonable or not. The second goal is to recognize your desire for the conversation, for the relationship, or for yourself.

The process of checking in helps you to reach clarity about where you really are and where you really want to go. Collectively, this makes finding the path between the two much easier to find even if the path itself isn’t easy. If the path doesn’t seem easy, maybe you need A Fearless Heart to guide you.