The Courage to Have Compassion – a #1000Speak post

During World War 1, a man armed only with a revolver and stick destroyed a German machine gun and its killed its crew. When attempting to take out a second machine gun he was killed. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

That’s courage, the kind of courage that wins medals, and is remembered.

Yet, it also takes courage to say no, to be a conscientious objector. The men who refused to take part in the First World War were often ridiculed, shunned and even their families were treated with abuse. Although conscientious objection was legal, men had to go before tribunals, and some were imprisoned.

These are different kinds of courage, both with roots in compassion. John Meikle, who took on the machine gun crew, did so to protect his comrades’ lives. The men who refused to go to war did so because they believed it was wrong to take any lives.

In some ways, John Meikle’s courage could be seen as “conventional.” Certainly, it’s what was seen as masculine then, and to some extent still is: fighting for your country, standing up for yourself and your comrades. Along with around 250,000 other boys, he lied about his age to join the army at sixteen. What motivates a boy to do such a thing? According to the BBC: many were gripped by patriotic fervour, sought escape from grim conditions at home or wanted adventure. Of course, their adventure was as grim as any conditions they’d left.

Harry_PatchIn 2004, Harry Patch, the last British army survivor of WW1, met Charles Kuentz, Germany’s last surviving veteran. Afterwards, Harry said, “We’ve had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it’s a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak?”

When confronted by a German soldier, Harry shot him in the shoulder. This didn’t stop the German, and Harry had seconds to decide: “Should I obey my oath to King and country or follow the law of Moses: Thou shalt not kill.” He shot the man in the knee and ankle, and hoped the injured soldier could go home to his family.

Around the time Harry Patch met Charles Kuentz, I saw him interviewed on television. What I remember most about Harry was the image of him in wheelchair on a beach and these words: “At the end, peace was settled round a table, so why the hell couldn’t they do that at the start without losing millions of men?”

Why the hell indeed?

It’s probably true that not all wars could have been prevented by sitting round a table. It’s hard to imagine Hitler would have done that. Yet it’s probably also true that if the Treaty of Versailles had been less harsh on Germany, the resentment that led to Hitler’s rise to power would not had happened.

If the aftermath of World War 1 bred the conditions for the next war, its build-up had four main causes:

  • European countries forming alliances with each other.
  • the arms race
  • imperialism (European countries came into conflict with each other as they conquered colonies,)
  • nationalism (a belief: “my country is better than others”)

These were the fuel for the fire; the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the spark that set it alight.

Looking at that list, it’s not hard to see parallels today. Historians point to the similarity between European alliances and NATO or other modern agreements.

Arms-building continues, and historian Margaret MacMillan sees parallels between modern day terrorism and the activities of communist and anarchist groups in the early 20th century, who believed they were fighting to achieve a better world.

Imperialism today is mostly through economic means rather than by conquering other countries, though every now and then a western country (usually the USA) finds a reason to invade another country to “support” them. In the UK, we recently had the publication of the Chilcot report – a document that took 2.6 million words and seven years to conclude what most people long suspected: “the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.”

While the other causes of WW1 were largely in the hands of rulers, nationalism is of the people. It often promises a solution to problems, gives a sense of belonging, of being part of something bigger. It also gives a sense of being superior, better than others. It is a form of tribalism and is rife in the world today.

It is to tribalism that Trump appeals with his rants against Mexicans, it’s what some prominent Leave campaigners appealed to with their promises to control immigration. Tribalism is behind much (most?) of the violence and intolerance throughout our world.

Tribalism leads us to protect “our people” and to defend against others. It might have served our ancestors when the world was sparsely populated and the main threat came from large animals, but now, unless we break free of it, it could destroy us.

It makes no sense to believe that because of an accident of birth location, skin colour or sexual orientation, I am somehow superior to you. It makes no sense to believe that because I, or my ancestors, came to live on a particular patch of land I am better than you.

Tribalism infiltrates every one of us, and as long as we believe we are superior to any other group of people (including Trump and his supporters, or terrorists) we are at risk. As long as we avoid seeing our own weaknesses and intolerances, we will go on blaming other people.

Let’s not pretend we’re prefect, or that we’ve never had a tribal thought or felt a tribal emotion. Let’s have courage to look inside, to notice those thoughts – and to love ourselves for them. As long as we hate any aspect of ourselves, we hate it in others too. Hatred doesn’t lead to love. When we hate ourselves, we feel shame; we hide. It feels so bad we want to lash out and find someone else to blame. We need courage to be compassionate with ourselves, and to extend that compassion to others.

You will have heard of Malala Yousafzai, the young Nobel Peace prize-winner, who was shot by the Taliban for advocating for girls’ education in Pakistan. Malala and her family now live in the UK, and she continues to work for peace and women’s rights.

You may not know that Aware Girls, a group of which Malala was an early member, continues to work to promote human rights in Pakistan. Much of their work is using education to dissuade young people from joining extremist organisations. They work in deeply conservative parts of Pakistan controlled by the Taliban, but instead of using aggressive or confrontational tactics, they arrange closed meetings with audiences of men chosen from the local area after being identified as liberal-minded. The young women who address these men do so sensitively, aiming to gain them as allies. Men can then receive training to work with other men to further equality and challenge extremism. I have little doubt that much of Aware Girls’ success is down to their respect and compassion for the people they reach out to.

Showing respect for people, having compassion for them, even when they hold views that are abhorrent, is the only way we will ever create lasting peace. For all the fury at Trump and other extreme right-wing politicians, very few change their minds. Instead, they justified in feeling attacked.

The young women in Aware Girls show a different route, and offer us hope. In the video below, so does Waleed Aly. He responds to a call by talk show host, Sonia Kruger, to ban Muslims from migrating to Australia. Since her comment, Kruger has received a barrage of abuse. Aly doesn’t add to that. Instead he says, “Sonia Kruger isn’t evil. She’s scared and she’s trying to make sense of the world. Yesterday, she admitted to not feeling safe. How do you think she feels now? And how do you expect her to react?” (I recommend you watch the full video – everything he says is worth listening to.)


It takes courage to respond as Aly did. His is not the usual response to comments such as Kruger’s, but he’s right when he says that people are afraid, and that to condemn them just perpetuates: “the inertia of outrage that spins the Gravitron that we’re all on.”

Let’s not do that. Let’s have the courage to be compassionate.

Let’s have the courage to be compassionate.

Finally, while writing about compassion is unlikely to ever win us medals, it has won me a blogging award! I am delighted to have received one of BlogHer’s Voices of the Year Honouree Awards for the post I wrote in January 2015 inviting people to join me in writing about Compassion for the very first 1000 Voices Speak For Compassion link-up.

The awards ceremony is in Los Angeles in August, and since I live too far away to attend, I am very pleased that Roshni of American Indian Mom will be going in my place. You can read more about the awards here.

I was a BlogHer 2016 VOTY Honoree

Photograph of Harry Patch by Jim Ross (English Wikipedia) CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This post is written for 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion’s July link-up.

This month, 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion continues to work toward a better world with a focus on Compassion and Courage.

Here’s how to get involved:

Join 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion on Facebook

Visit the 1000Speak blog

Follow @1000Speak on Twitter

Use the #1000Speak hashtag across social media.
To join in the Link-up or read more posts, click the blue button below and follow the instructions.


  1. Wow Yvonne. This said so much of what my thought process has been lately and I would have written something along these lines for my post.
    Instead, still mulling it over.
    Globalism is not the popular choice. Nationalism seems more where people’s heads are at, but I hope we can find a compromise.
    You are right and I have written about Malala before for 1000 Speak. As for war, I have so much to say about that, past wars and even in the present. In all things, hate breeds more hate, but you are correct that so many are simply afraid.
    Congrats on the award. Nothing more deserved than that.

    1. Author

      Thanks very much Kerry. I hope you do manage to write a post with your perspective on this. I’d love to read it.

  2. “Imperialism today is mostly through economic means rather than by conquering other countries, though every now and then a western country (usually the USA) finds a reason to invade another country to “support” them.” This is sadly so true. Most of America doesn’t even recognize that its “free markets” and “capitalism” and “democracy” are forms of imperialism. The widening gaps in our nation, and the lack of human compassion and empathy have allowed for a weed like Trump to grow. It will choke our nation; it already is. Yet the second part to your observation, America’s invasions to “support” is something I’ve known for a long time. My husband is a veteran of combat most people are unaware of existing in Central America. No matter how we got in this mess, Americans need to develop the courage to care, to weep on behalf of others, to welcome the downtrodden to uplift those in need. We think terrorism happens elsewhere. It has roots in any -ism that denies any person humanity.

  3. Author

    Charli, I wholeheartedly agree with your remedy – not just for Americans, but all of us. We need the courage to care and to help others. I also totally agree with that you say about terrorism. It’s roots lie in anything that dies a person’s humanity, absolutely. The moment we dehumanise anyone, we are effectively employing the same thinking as terrorists. I think this is so, so important, because unless we recognise it, we end up like the characters in Orwell’s Animal Farm – repeating the same atrocities we railed against.

    Thanks for your comment – and thanks also for your brilliant post for this link up!

  4. This is so good, Yvonne. It’s really hard to NOT get completely angry and riled up about Trump (I just cannot even believe people are standing up for and with him!!!!) (UGH!!!!) Hate breeds hate, and fear breeds success for hate campaigns.
    Huge congratulations on the award – I went to BHer the last 2 years but am not going this year. If I were, I’d have loved to take a photo with your VOTY sign. 😀

    1. Author

      Kristi, it’s absolutely fine to get angry and riled up about Trump and co. I guess it’s easy to think we shouldn’t and I can definitely feel that way. Anger just is. It’s the stories we make up about it, and what we do about it that can cause problems, not the emotion itself. Years ago, I read a blog in which the writer had learned to focus on how anger felt in the body and to let it pass through. Wow, what a difference that made to me. What a difference it would make if we could get our world leaders together and have them do this! (I can understand how you feel about Trump. I’ve felt that way about politicians too, though ones closer to home than Trump. The distance helps a bit with not feeling so riled I think!)
      Like most people, I spent much of my life suppressing anger (and still sometimes do.) It just finds sneaky ways to show up or comes in outbursts. Better to fully feel it and find what’s beyond it.
      Thanks so much for your comment and for your congrats. Did you win a VOTY twice?

  5. Pingback: What Is Courage Anyway? #1000Speak | Her Headache

  6. First of all CONGRATULATIONS Yvonne on an EXCELLENT piece so well deserving of an award! I am thrilled for you and for the message it will continue to bring…

    This, as always, was an incredible read. Thank you- for offering such an articulate and well thought out essay on the most important topic of our world. You offered me new information, as well as a deeper perspective into all this madness.

    I’ll be honest. I’m scared. Thank you for always teaching me new ideas and backing them up with your trusted intellect, my friend. This post is worth re-reading AND sharing! XO

    1. Author

      Christine, thanks so much for your congrats and kind words.
      I am so sorry to see that you feel scared, and you are certainly not alone. I have moments of feeling that way myself about the world situation, but mostly I have a sense that what’s going on is that humanity’s collective turmoil is part of our growth in the same way that a person going through therapy or spiritual growth often experiences emotional turmoil before a time of expansiveness.
      As well as all the violence, hatred and fear there’s also a huge increase in the number of people being willing to look inside to their own turmoil and allow it to heal. It seems to me that is how we ultimately heal the world – we can’t force others to change, but as more and more of us do face our own darker side, it becomes easier for others to follow.
      (Maybe I’m kidding myself here, but only time will tell.)

  7. Yes! I have always believed that education and reaching out will work wonders where war and suppression will not! But, the former is such a slow process, which is why the latter is so tempting, even though it is short-sighted!
    Congrats once again for the VOTY, Yvonne! It was a pleasure to see your name in the slides!!

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