“Bleeding heart” ... er, What, Exactly?

Sunni's picture

Two people very dear to me frequently describe themselves as a “bleeding heart liberal”. Noticing that yesterday set me off down another cognitive rabbit hole ...

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a sensitive person—I think my massage therapist captured this aspect of me very well when she referred to it as my “gooeyness inside” (hearing that caused me to mist up a bit, I must confess; she said it like it was such a good thing). Mama Liberty’s musings about how brains work the other day got me wondering about that ... maybe I have more mirror neurons than others; or perhaps they’re more easily excited or less inhibited than others’ are. Whatever the cause, I am easily reduced to gooeyness in a lot of situations ... and I have considered that a vital component of that “bleeding heart” label.

But I don’t think I’ve ever seriously considered myself a liberal. For one thing, I like guns way more than most liberals would be comfortable with. So, what am I? The first thing to come to mind was “bleeding heart libertarian”, and that set me to wondering if anyone else had had that idea. The answer is yes—and happy three-month anniversary to the crew. As I just now discovered that site, I have no idea how well their ideas and outlooks might mesh with mine; but I did see something else that sets me apart from them, and pretty much all the other bleeding hearts I know: not having a good understanding of what the concept means and how it actually applies to living, I don’t place much value on social justice. At the risk of sliding off down a side hole on this rabbit hole, it has always struck me as a five-dollar way of talking about fairness. And I’m already on record hereabouts as not finding much value in that concept.

So why do I think I might be a bleeding heart .... er, whatever? (Bleeding heart anarchist is simply too vague to work; and any modifiers that make it more specific also make it instantaneously unwieldy.) Because I do care about other people—especially those who, through the random happenstance of the place or other condition(s) of their birth, would probably face an inordinately difficult challenge in trying to improve their lives. Because I am convinced that the concept of “community” can accommodate one individual (who has more bacteria in and on her body than cells that comprise it) just as easily as it can the entire planet; and because of the very blurry distinctions at those larger values, benevolence is the best default mode of interacting with other living things. Because I (mostly) disagree with Doug Casey and (mostly) agree with John Mackey—particularly when the latter talks about love.

And most of all, because if we truly want a civil society in which to live, benevolence must be a cornerstone of it. Surely, examining just the effects of “antiterrorism” laws and agencies in this country over the past decade is sufficient evidence that deepening one’s fear and suspicions of others is not moving us closer to that goal.


I grew up with an alcoholic mother. She found help early with AA, so I grew up going to the meetings and absorbing the 12 step philosophy. The greatest thing I took from that is the importance of balancing compassion with expecting the person being helped to assume self responsibility.

So much of the "compassion" I see demonstrated in this world is some combination of self serving ego and enabling of the destructive behavior/situation. And this is just as true for people who are in situations not of their making, not their "fault," etc.

None of us can order our life as we wish, or avoid all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. We can and must face those things, accept responsibility for our lives - even when the situation is not of our making - and adapt our response to meet things the best we can.

The family, neighborhood and community absolutely can and should react with compassion, moral support and even an outright hand at times. We must simply always be aware of the danger of helping too much, and possibly for the wrong reasons.

Anyway, I've struggled with it all my life, through a long career in nursing and hospice, and continue to do so today. I suspect I always will.

We are in strong agreement.

And, just to be clear, I didn’t mean to suggest that just because one can, one necessarily must help another. Sometimes it’s enough to show the compassion one feels ... So much of our lives we’re encouraged to develop calluses on our souls, when our efforts are better invested in developing a keener sense of when, how, and to what degree one can express one’s empathy (which spans from silent commiseration to extended support). Or so it appears to me.


I didn't mean to indicate that anyone "must" help or that helping and personal responsibility are mutually exclusive at all, of course.

As with all things, we just have to seek the balance. And there is probably no better motive for anything than love. :)

Some people are, for whatever reason, simply less empathic and compassionate than others. Just part of life.


Speaking as a bleeding-heart liberal... *g*

First of all, I think truer words were never spoken than your last paragraph, for many reason, not the least of which is that you can't legislate against an ideology (or go to "war" against it) and expect it to work.

You're right--I'm not that comfortable with guns. I don't fully understand why one /needs/ a gun, but that's me. The Constitution says you can have one, and I have no interest in trying to take yours away.

I don't believe that active compassion and personal responsibility are mutually exclusive. I am a huge believer in personal responsibility, and yet, I also know that the playing field is not even. Is it a bad thing to give everyone the same starting place and then say, "Ok, if you want more, take it from here, you're on your own from here on out"? I believe that a civilized people do not let their own go homeless or hungry or without basic needs or a decent education. But neither do I believe in giving everyone a McMansion. (In fact, I don't think anyone needs a McMansion, but that's another story.)

A liberal is simply someone who is willing to accept new ideas and discard traditional behaviors or values if they no longer serve. That's me. I embrace the phrase "bleeding heart liberal" with something of a dose of snark (who? me?); conservatives seem to find it an insult, while I am not insulted by it at all.

In the end, I don't think political distinctions matter nearly so much as motivation. Do your actions come from love or fear? If they come from love, I don't care who you vote for (or if you vote at all).

That was rather rambly, but there you have it.

Much love, my Martha. Yr Hildegarde.

Well, you made that easy.

A liberal is simply someone who is willing to accept new ideas and discard traditional behaviors or values if they no longer serve.

That’s me, too—but I’m much more used to the noun having a specific political viewpoint attached to it.

Is it a bad thing to give everyone the same starting place ...

I think a better starting position is to ask if such a thing can be accomplished (and if so, by whom and by what means). It quickly becomes demonstrably clear that it cannot. Yet the latter questions are relevant as many societies try to accomplish varying schemes of redistribution using force. We can see with equal clarity that it doesn’t work well. I happen to think a nontrivial portion of the reason is because the motivation is definitely not love.

Always good to hear from you, my dear Hildegarde!

It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing!

"I happen to think a nontrivial portion of the reason is because the motivation is definitely not love."

I ran across a quote a few days ago that had nagged at me for attention since I'd read it - your comment reminded me of it.

Attributed to Gabriel Garcia Marquez:
"The invincible power that has moved the world is unrequited, not happy, love."