When I was listening to Scott Ludlam’s book, Full Circle, I was impressed by the levels of courage and commitment that the activists Scott wrote about demonstrated in the most difficult of situations. In person, Scott was as inspiring as the people he had spent time with and written about, and, after talking with him, I was left with a palpable sense of the compassion that underpins his courage and commitment.
I have appreciated that people need a balanced combination of compassion and courage to achieve difficult and worthwhile ends since I listened to The Heart and the Fist in 2011, but talking with Scott helped me to understand that people also require a personally defined version of commitment, to focus their compassion and courage, so that they can improve the world.
Blind Insights – Do you know how Dangerous you are? With special guest Scott Ludlam:
People need compassion to identify what matters and what isn’t right, and they need courage to take action to make things better, and they need commitment to work steadfastly toward defining and achieving worthwhile ends. Compassion and courage can get people moving, but it takes commitment to a defined end to provide them with a clear direction in which to travel.
When I listened to The Heart and the Fist in 2011, I was impressed by both the ideas in the book and the author himself. Eric Greitens had volunteered in humanitarian disaster zones throughout his time as a university student in the 1990s, and had seen what compassionate action could do to improve people’s lives under terrible circumstances, but he had also come to realise that we should have the courage to stop humanitarian disasters from happening in the first place. Over the course of the book Greitens goes from being an undergraduate at Duke University, to completing a PhD at Oxford, to becoming a decorated Navy SEAL, to starting a philanthropic organisation to help veterans.
Throughout the book Greitens appears to be motivated by a deep sense of compassion and a growing sense of courage. His path from humanitarian volunteer to Navy SEAL is not typical, but his arguments for courage being necessary to empower compassion, and for compassion being necessary to temper courage, are persuasive.
As Greitens formed his world view in the bloody aftermath of 1990s ethnic violence, it is not surprising that the idea of using force to stop greater violence is important to his book. The 9/11 attacks happened during Greitens’ training to become a SEAL, providing him with a defined environment through which to manifest his compassion and courage. The War on Terror provided him with external definition and scaffolding for his commitment.
Unfortunately, at some point, Greitens’ life appears to have parted company with the ideas in his book, resulting in him resigning early from the role of Governor of Missouri (in the midst of a sex scandal) with criminal charges hanging over his head. Of course, someone’s life and their book should not be conflated, but, based on reporting of Greitens recent life, I have to admit that I have wondered what to make of The Heart and the Fist ten years after I first listened to it.
After reading Full Circle and talking with Scott Ludlam, I felt motivated to re-listen to Greitens’ book, to see if I had any new insights. What became apparent to me was that Greitens had courage and compassion in balance by the time he was training to be a Navy SEAL, but he was still looking for the specific commitment that would shape his life, right up to the point when he was swept up into the whirlwind of post 9/11 Special Operations warfare. The commitment to go to war stretched his courage and compassion to suit his nation’s ends, rather than courage, compassion, and commitment existing in balance, as defined by him. When his time at war was over, Greitens had to redefine his commitment to become an advocate for veterans, once again changing the dynamics in his life. I can’t make enough sense out of what happened when Greitens became a Governor to hypothesise what happened next.
In contrast, Scott, as well as the activists he writes about, are committed to democracy and saving the environment at a very human and personal scale. My sense is that, in the world of activism Scott elucidates, commitment, compassion, and courage reinforce each other in a recurring triangle of empathy, action, and purpose, within which greater strength and capacity comes from meeting and working with similarly compassionate, courageous, and committed people. My hypothesis is that activists strengthen activism and each other by working together, and that defining one’s own commitment in conjunction with other compassionate and courageous individuals produces more stable and powerful commitment than if it was externally defined.
For Greitens, his commitment was externally defined by the United States to fight the War on Terror, and the system could only see him as a tool, rather than as a vital individual. Compassion and courage build each other up in The Heart and the Fist, but the third part of the triangle, commitment, is missing until external events take over. Greitens only gets a clear purpose to commit to when he watches the Twin Towers collapse on a TV screen while in a Navy Mess. From this point onwards, too much of his life is defined by orders and events that have no interest in, or use for, a person living and working on a human scale.
After rethinking The Heart and the Fist through the context of Full Circle, I believe that people are most persuasive and powerful when they manifest a balanced combination of compassion, courage, and commitment. This combination of characteristics enables people to be strong, and to come together to improve the world, without destroying what makes them unique and relatable on a human scale.
If you can feel the compassion and courage radiating out from deep inside of you, but you haven’t yet worked out what to commit yourself to, try not to be swept away by an externally defined whirlwind of purpose. It is better to wait to define yourself, and to refine your definition in conjunction with other people who live and act at a human scale, than it is to become a tool of something bigger than yourself that predominantly cares about itself. It may take time to work out what to commit yourself to, but this will give you time to develop your compassion and courage, so that you can become the sort of balanced person we need to improve the world-without sacrificing what makes individuals’ amazing along the way.
Aspire to become compassionate, courageous, and committed, and to hold yourself to a standard that never loses sight of your (or others’) humanity. If more of us choose to behave in this way, then we are far more likely to succeed.
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