Courageously Changing the World with Compassion

By Evan Harrel and Laura Berland

Courage is an active word, with a focus on the strength to “do something” that is intimidating or fear inducing. It also takes great courage to set the stage for “doing something” or to respond to what happens after we have “done something.” In a world hungering for peace, we offer a call to courageous compassion at the heart of and at the edges of the field of conflict: courage to accept yourself, courage to view the other as worthy of your understanding, courage to be willing to act without being attached to the result, and courage to be patient.

Compassion is the awareness of the suffering of another combined with the desire to help relieve that suffering (Goetz JL et al, 2020). When compassion is offered to relieve suffering on its arising, but fails to address the root cause of that suffering, the suffering will return again and again. Peacebuilding, social justice, and social change require us to address the systemic issues underlying and causing suffering to bring about sustainable shifts. Systems change is where courage and compassion come together to make a difference in our challenged world. 


Courageous self-acceptance

Courageous social change begins with the courage to accept yourself just as you are right now. Seeking to bring forth change brings resistance of many kinds, including personal attacks on your motives and legitimacy to advocate for change. When you have accepted yourself exactly as you are, personal attacks that cut too close to the bone will be less likely to trigger a defensive response. With acceptance, you can take yourself out of the middle, and focus the dialogue on what needs changing.

To do this, you must be comfortable in your own skin. Changing the world starts with changing ourselves. We won’t find inner peace by only pursuing peace in the outer world, but we will increase our effectiveness by anchoring ourselves on a solid foundation of self-acceptance. 

This takes time, work, and courage. Self-examination requires courage. Self-love requires courage. Committing to change requires courage. And each of these increase the likelihood for success in the pursuit of social justice.

Courageously accepting the other

From a place of self-acceptance and non-judgment, we learn to find an acceptance of the other in our work. This is still an extremely challenging task, especially when the other is responsible for direct harm or the creation of systems and structures that harm others. We must remember that the harm we see is just the tip of the iceberg. It takes courage and compassion to look more deeply and recognize that the root of the visible harm is often multi-generational and stubbornly persistent. The unseen part of the iceberg involves all humanity, all societies, and connects to more than one person or one group of people.

When you are courageous enough to lean into challenging circumstances to get to the deeper places, you begin to see the one creating harm as a vulnerable human just like you. You can find understanding for the causes behind negative behavior without approving of the harmful acts themselves. Recognizing the causes requires great courage and will lead to more appropriate responses.

The bullies in our world act from a place of fear. Can you imagine what the world would be like if violent individuals felt safe? But yet, it feels a betrayal to wish well for those who are bringing forth great harm in the world. It takes courage to offer lovingkindness and say, “May Vladimir Putin feel safe. May Vladimir Putin be free from suffering.” If that prayer were to come true, everyone within his domain of power would also be safer and would suffer less. Have the courage to recognize the common humanity of those who may be perceived as your enemies.


The courage to let go of expectations

When we ground ourselves in self-acceptance and self-love, and then approach the other as someone worthy of our attention, we find ourselves at the place of action. While the courage required to act is something well understood, there is another courage that is required as our work unfolds, and that is the courage to persist patiently without expectation of immediate results or personal rewards.

The temptation to attach to a desired outcome is very strong, especially in goal-oriented cultures. In our highly complex, and often random world, the difference between a good action and a good outcome can be challenging to discern. There is so much more beyond our control than within it. Every action we take offers an opportunity to learn about what may be done better, and what was done well and is worthy of repeating. Rather than centering our attention on how close the outcome is to our desires,  focus on what can be learned from the experience. 


The courage to act with patience

It is difficult to know the timeframe for change. Consider the fall of the Berlin Wall. Decades of resistance converged with dramatic change that unfolded in what seemed like the blink of an eye. Predicting how change will unfold is usually only accurate in hindsight, therefore, allow yourself to flow with a flexible, patient timetable.

As the late Irish poet John O’Donohue wrote “The beauty of nature insists on taking its time. Everything is prepared. Nothing is rushed. The rhythm of emergence is a gradual slow beat always inching its way forward; change remains faithful to itself until the new unfolds in the full confidence of true arrival” (O’Donohue, 2008).

We are impatient for resolution, and yet, emergent change takes time. Courage is required to maintain the consistent “slow beat always inching its way forward,” especially when incremental progress can be so hard to recognize. It takes courage to do our best without the affirmation of visible change. Stay the course, with an open heart. Persist. You never know when your intention or action will begin to bear fruit and ripple out into the world.



Goetz JL, Keltner D, Simon-Thomas E, 2010. Compassion: an evolutionary analysis and empirical review. Psychol Bull 136: 351-374.

O’Donohue, John. To Bless the Space between Us: A Book of Blessings. Doubleday, 2008. p. 47


Evan Harrel is the Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of the Center for Compassionate Leadership. He leads the Center’s thought leadership efforts, the integration of scientific and business research into the work of the Center, and the development and delivery of the Center’s leadership training programs. He was awarded a MBA, with distinction, from Harvard Business School and a Bachelor of Arts, cum laude, from Princeton University.

Laura Berland is the Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Compassionate Leadership. She has developed a new model for these turbulent times that melds evidence-based principles of modern leadership and the latest scientific research with the wisdom of contemplative and embodiment practices. Laura has extensive experience working with executives, entrepreneurs, graduate students, military veterans, and yoga/meditation teachers. She is an alumna of Cornell University and New York University.