Empathy: The Stuff of Legends
How can men become true adventurers wielding a shield of vulnerability and a spear of empathy?
By John Harris
Nothing. Absolutely nothing is more ferocious and fearsome than the fury of the deeply empathetic.
When you possess the ability to deeply love and share the uncompromising burden of another’s anguish, you become more than yourself. You fight for more than yourself.
This is why we celebrate mothers and parents who could throw a car or wrestle a bear to save their child. Their adoration and hearts willing to do whatever is necessary for protecting their family. We see heroes taking a bullet for their beloved, fighting off alleyway nightmares that their soulmate might live on. It is this reason, empathy, that soldiers reenlist, wading back into battle beside their brothers in arms. Throughout the ages, we herald brave determination in fighting for love. Beyond cliched romance, where the darkness threatens all you hold dear, giving your life proudly to defend that which you love most. In these moments, we have no thought for gratitude or reward. We do not hesitate for appreciative notoriety, thinking only for the well being of those we adore. It is an emotion so pure as to dwarf all other feelings, where fear becomes a fuel to ignite our passion. Even suppressing our innate drive toward self-preservation.
No one strives so hard as one does for empathy. Not for a corner office, impressing swimsuit models, or gaining more Instagram likes. Empathy: it is the stuff of legends.
And yet, if we know all of this, our literature and movies filled with heroes whose hearts burn with love, why then do we shame one another for expressing it? For showing an excess of it or feeling overwhelmed by it.
Why do we view our most masculine as lacking such loving empathy?
Instead, we cheer their stoic detachment, much like a sociopath, judging a situation dispassionately, viewing the individuals involved as mere minor characters slaughtered for the overall performance. At the very least, somewhere deep down our loner hero reluctantly does the right thing, though ultimately refusing even the slightest appreciative affirmation, disappearing into the sunset, alone once more.
Whether it’s Mad Max, Rambo, James Bond, John McClane, Han Solo, or John Wick, each one only allows themselves the vaguest sense of general empathy for a good cause or fallen loved one, punishing themselves to a life of servitude in the hope of serene disassociation.
Whether it’s Mad Max, Rambo, James Bond, John McClane, Han Solo, or John Wick, each one only allows themselves the vaguest sense of general empathy for a good cause or fallen loved one, punishing themselves to a life of servitude in the hope of serene disassociation. We see them as weaker for that love, carrying a painful burden, easily manipulated by the villain, unable to break from doing good. As if being the “good” guy and “caring” was a literal flaw in their personality, that if they could just walk away from such responsibility, they would live a life of ease.
Yet, if that’s true, then why do we love them so much for such unbreakable resolve and resiliency? Why do we revere their badass-itude? Certainly, we’d not idolize them as much if they were mildly driven to maybe helping an insurance firm achieve better third-quarter sales since no one displays the same passion as one does for the defense of love and the heart.
If love and empathy lend us the passion to fight beyond limitation, surpassing all boundaries, then why don’t we view our most sensitive empaths as the strongest amongst us? Why isn’t the apex of masculinity to feel deeply an emotional empathy for all that surrounds us?
Developing empathy and being willing to open yourself to vulnerability is far scarier and harder than most are prepared to endure.
The reason, because empathy and love take the most work, requires true vulnerability, two things that frighten us into suicidal denial where we are taught that being an island, self-reliant, and without allegiance is a sign of our strength rather than the withering of it. As despair longs to keep us isolated and emotionless, weak. To make matters worse, we live in a world without the necessary support we all need instead breeding an atmosphere of misery where no one need try, that we might all live apathetically without the disappointment of failure.
Much like the armchair first-person shooter contrasted against the PTSD of a deployed veteran, the glossy high school sweethearts amid the aged fifty-year anniversary couple, the real strength of empathy and emotional commitment requires work. Not breaking concrete, hundred hour work week, type work, which we use to deflect from the true hard labor at hand; emotional labor. Developing empathy and being willing to open yourself to vulnerability is far scarier and harder than most are prepared to endure. It is why the infancy of newborns shape parents far stronger than baby shower registries, why heartbreak hammers the naivety out of relationships, and getting older hones your lust for living beyond any youthful imagination.
Our movie heroes are not saving themselves from specific loving relationships, they’re terrified of them.
They help the world’s general malaise from the periphery, the safety of balconied walkways, and protected boweries of the heart. Real champions walk unguarded into the mists of human emotion, leaving the comfort of their island paradise, to fight not only for the world but to create love wherever it might take root. From Jesus to Harvey Milk, Nelson Mandela to Che Guevara, Harriett Tubman to Buddha, each fought valiantly for the empathy of others. Not from behind the safety of power and wealth, but down deep in the trenches of human struggle. Forget their individual causes and recognize what empathy alone granted them the power to achieve. Had any one of them felt a detached strategic connection to the people of their day, no one would have followed in their wake.
Granting flesh-wound-only bullet grazing to an unstoppable hero is easy in the face of our fear of vulnerability.
We can do better than John Wick. Granting flesh-wound-only bullet grazing to an unstoppable hero is easy in the face of our fear of vulnerability. Each day we are tasked with opportunities to open up, setting aside our pitiful tantrums, laying waste to the walls that imprison us, doing the hard work to pour foundations of unbreakable empathy. It is within our power to quit seeing the illusion of frailty in fully opening our hearts, believing the bluster of bravado spouted by the miserable brobots of the false masculine. Rather, turn it right-side up and know that for every individual your heart can sincerely embrace, every moment of awkward vulnerability you relish, you become stronger. Your empathy grows, you can withstand more, endure harder, and love deeper.
So remember, when the rage of your fear threatens to build walls, think on what it would have taken to enrage the cool poise of Martin Luther King, Jr., everything he had to endure, ever stronger by his defiant vulnerability, safe only behind the empathetic passion of his words. When he raged, millions marched courageously into the terror of despots, each one made mightier by the empathy of his marrow. No amount of wealth, fame, or authority could ever match such raw power, certainly not the fancy trigger moves of John Wick.
As men, we have a tremendous opportunity at achieving such breathtaking strength.
We are not so often physically threatened, rather smothered by our privilege to cower behind the palace walls of male entitlement. Never questioning the safety of our ramparts, growing fragile, feeble, and frail taking our privilege for granted. Like spoiled princes believing all within our grasp, blind to the lustrous world beyond. So wander outside your palace gates and brave a quest to become a true adventurer, wielding a shield of vulnerability and a spear of empathy.
For that is the stuff of legends.
Born in the southern country of Louisiana, surrounded by hyper masculinity and the prejudice of being a “Good ol’ Boy.” I have always been expected to participate at the head of the misogynistic boys club, with a square jaw in the shape of an “Alpha.” Raised to believe that women should know their place, men ruled the household, and protecting “your woman” was the essence of manhood. Football locker rooms, Bourbon street bartending, bouncing at strip clubs, and the U.S. Army Green Beret. I was taught that crying was forbidden and strong men needed no one. My heroes were one man armies, lone wolves, and lethal weapons. They could “make” any woman fall in love with them and never took “no” for an answer. I was trained to see masculinity as aggressive domination. To conquer weaker men and “hear the lamentation” of the women. The hotter they were, the more I “man-ed up.” It was like a game. Everyone existed as nothing more than a coin for my amassed prominence. Alone in my fortress of masculinity atop a mountain of privilege, immune to the horror of vulnerability.
So alone. So completely unhappy….
…I quit my career and now seek to become one of those voices for change, to funnel my passion and empathy into a future of diversity, sharing my vulnerability as a stair to future generations. I am a writer, teaching and creating ways to further our conversation. Partnering with other men and women, across the political spectrum, to forge a new ideal of masculinity….