Joe Biden talks about courage and empathy: a unique combination

Many people think that the Stephen Colbert interview with Vice-President Joe Biden on Thursday, September 10 was seminal TV. Both had suffered tragic losses in their families and have done a remarkable job of picking up the pieces and moving on, while not forgetting how important the relatives whom they lost were to them.

In May, 2015, Biden’s son, Beau, died from brain cancer. He was only forty-six. By all accounts, he was a remarkable man. He survived a devastating automobile crash in 1972 when he was only three. His mother and sister were killed and his brother seriously injured. He went on to become a very successful lawyer, in private practice, in the Delaware Army National Guard, and in state government, becoming Attorney-General of Delaware. Joe Biden said of Beau, “Success is when your children turn out better than you.”

One of the interesting things that Joe Biden said about Beau to Stephen Colbert was, “He had so much courage; he had so much empathy.” That line really struck me, because I do not recall too many times hear the words courage and empathy in the same sentence. With the benefit of modern technology, I was able to download John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize book, “Profiles in Courage.” Doing a quick word search, I could not find the word “empathy” once in the book. I even double-checked on the word ‘sympathy’ because the two words were often confused in the 1950s when the book was written. Still zero.

I then downloaded a long New York Times Magazine article from March, 2015, “The Brain’s Empathy Gap.” I did a word search on “courage.” I found one use of the word “courageous.”

Joe Biden’s description of his son makes Beau unique. If a person is both courageous and empathetic, it would seem that he is willing to take wise risks while having strong feelings of concern and even love for others. When placed on the global stage, this is particularly important.

Students of the “Republican Brain” have cited that it seems that many Republicans are lacking the “empathy gene.” Perhaps that is why they are so keen on praising, even revering, courage. They like individuals who are willing to face adversity, even when it is not in their comfort zone. What many Republicans seem to lack is a real sense of empathy for the people against whom someone is being courageous. This seems to explain in part how they repeatedly and almost relentless honor “our men and women in uniform” and praise them for their courage. What they often fail to do is to show actual concern for what the mission of these men and women is. They also seem to lack empathy for the soldiers when they confront hardship, as evidenced by the resistance to proper funding for veterans’ care. Many Republicans also seem indifferent to the additional sacrifice that innocent members of the soldiers’ families face after enlistment and deployment.

In the Colbert interview, Joe Biden provided us with an element of authenticity rarely seen in public officials or candidates for office. I have a deeper appreciation of what unique characteristics he could bring to the presidency. It is not too much of a stretch to say that a man who can recognize the combination of courage and empathy in someone else might just have both of those traits as well. At the same time, the Bidens may have developed these traits because of the way they dealt with personal tragedies. It may be more important for Joe Biden to continue to nurture these qualities than to submit himself to the abuse of a presidential campaign. No matter what Joe Biden chooses to do, he has once again provided us with valuable insight into the human experience.

Colbert – Biden, Part I

Colbert – Biden, Part II