Mindfulness and Social Courage

Photo by Oliver Cole

Though there are many kinds of courage, I’d like to focus specifically on social courage, a term I heard from the On Being podcast during a wonderful interview with Activist, Actor, Producer, and Director, America Ferrera and Professor of International Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame, John Paul Lederach. Dr. Lederach, who also recently gave a great talk at the Upaya Socially Engaged Buddhism Training I’m participating in, coined the term.

The importance of social courage is exquisitely evident in today’s polarized environment. Sometimes the courage we need is to resist our instinctive urges to immediately assert another’s wrongness or to lash out in anger. Other times what is needed is the fortitude to mindfully make our voices heard, even when the situation feels awkward, messy, or controversial. Dr. Lederach, who has worked to negotiate peace under extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances, said the first principle of social courage is to “seek to understand those who do not understand us“. When we feel affronted, he said, “You can be angry, but don’t become bitter. You can be angry, but don’t refuse to talk. You can be angry, but don’t forget to love.

…we have to continually remind ourselves that our discomfort and our grappling is not a sign of failure. It’s a sign that we’re living at the edge of our imaginations. – America Ferrera

One definition of social courage might be taking wise action or speaking up when we witness injustice or harm, despite the potential risk to our reputation or social standing – or as vulnerability researcher Brené Brown would say, “showing up and letting yourself be seen despite the risks.” The risks might include embarrassment, exclusion, unpopularity, rejection or much worse. For example, there have been a number of studies showing that when we receive bad news, we tend to direct our afflictive emotions at the messenger, thus the saying “don’t shoot the messenger”. Our survival instincts create a strong need to turn ambiguity into certainty and make sense of our experiences, especially when they are unexpected or threatening. So, a knee-jerk reaction can be to quickly assign blame, assume harmful intentions, or malign the character of the one who brought us bad news.

Social courage fuels the wherewithal to pause before responding to strong emotions related to a communication we’ve received from another. We are being socially courageous when we reach out beyond our comfortable social circles to expand our understanding and make connections. It takes social courage to listen deeply even when we disagree, to ask questions when things seem unclear to us, and to maintain our presence, compassion and respect in the heat of conflict. We are also showing social courage when we communicate with others from a place of honesty and authenticity. Speaking from our hearts is what Dr. Brown calls “ordinary courage”.

What are some mindful ways we might cultivate social courage? Mindfulness can help us:

  • Take things less personally – recognizing that each person is like an iceberg with just a very little visible at the surface and a lot more that isn’t visible. We can only guess at what’s in another’s heart and what they have been through, if we make the space to wonder, but we can never really know. Each person, including ourselves, is embedded within complex, interconnected systems with a history and a future. With all this complexity, how could it be all about us?
  • Accept the necessity and inevitability of mistakes – In her book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Kathryn Schulz wrote, “…errors do not lead us away from the truth. Instead, they edge us incrementally toward it…. it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are.” Can we start from the premise of our shared, flawed humanity – that we are perfectly imperfect? If so we can learn to be more forgiving of ourselves and others so that we can learn and grow.
  • Learn to work with discomfort – accepting that there will be suffering in life, yet there can be some value in knowing the territory of grief, rage, boredom, sadness pain and other unpleasant experiences – just as there is value in savoring joy, happiness, and awe. Remembering that this too shall pass and being curious about what emerges can increase our social resilience.
  • Cultivate compassion – true compassion is a great equalizer and an antidote to fear, so compassion building practices like lovingkindness meditation, just like me, and taking and sending (tonglen) can help us engage more courageously with others.
  • Connect with intentions – When you have to be the bearer of bad news, first mindfully examine your motivations and then explicitly communicate them to the person or people you are delivering your message to. Research shows this can inoculate your audience against “shooting the messenger”.

Additional Resource:

John, LK, Blunden, H, and Liu, H (2019). Research Confirms: When Receiving Bad News, We Shoot the Messenger. Harvard Business Review

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