The Compassionate Boxer

Cinderella Man is packed with examples of relational wisdom. Russell Crowe plays the part of a real life hero named James J. Braddock. Once a successful heavyweight boxer, Braddock was reduced to poverty by a broken hand and the Great Depression.  After losing their home, he and his family were forced to live in a rundown, one-room basement apartment. Like so many other men, he went out every morning desperately looking for work so he could bring his wife enough money to buy food for the next meal.

In the clip you will watch below, he is returning home empty-handed. He knows his family will go to bed hungry once again. He is greeted by even worse news: his son has been stealing food. In spite of all the frustrations he must be feeling , he responds to his son with remarkable self control and empathy.

As you watch this scene, pay careful attention to the relational dynamics and emotional cues. Try to imagine how discouraged and powerless this man must feel. Watch Russell Crowe’s body language and posture. Listen to his tone of voice. Note his facial expressions. Pay attention to his use of pronouns; why is his switch from second person singular (“you”) to first person plural (“us” and “we”) so significant? Draw on his example to improve your own ability to discern emotions, desires, and needs in yourself and others, and to respond to them in constructive ways.

As you watch this clip, be sure to click the full screen icon in the lower right corner of the movie screen so you can better see the subtle body language and emotional cues of this moving exchange. (If screen does not appear, click here.)


If you were watching carefully, you will have noticed several excellent examples of relational wisdom. Let’s consider a few of them.

Crowe portrays a father who understands and restrains his own emotions, even in a highly stressful situation (self-aware and self-engaging). When he learns his son has stolen, he resists the temptation to jump to conclusions and give in to pride and anger (“How could you do this to us? You’ve disgraced our family! I’ll teach you not to steal!”).

By patiently holding his tongue, he sends his son the message that it’s safe to open his heart and reveal the reasons behind his actions (other-aware). In doing so, Crowe models one of the most appealing qualities God has built into us as his image-bearers: “love is patient and kind” (other-engaging).

Crowe demonstrates marvelous self-control throughout the scene. When he learned the reason for his son’s stealing, his body language revealed a deep inner agony. He looked up and down the street, suppressing a scream of anger and frustration, not at his son’s behavior, but at a world that was crushing his family and at his own inability to provide for those he loves (more self-awareness and engagement).

Crowe went from standing erect, to leaning over, to kneeling as he spoke to his son. This reduced physical intimidation and drew them closer to each other, both physically and emotionally (other-engagement).

More importantly, his posture physically illustrated the difference between law and grace. As he spoke “the law” to his son (“We don’t steal”), he was still above him, but when he spoke grace (“I promise we will never send you away”), he was kneeling so low that his eyes were actually beneath his son’s, persuasively communicating humility, kindness, and love (superb other-awareness and other-engagement, which continues throughout this scene).

Crowe moved smoothly from second person singular (“you”) to the first person plural (“we” and “us”). In doing so, he sent the clear message, “You are not excluded from my heart or love; we are a family and we are in this together.”

His tone of voice consistently conveyed gentleness and respect. He was firm but his words were not fashioned to sting and punish. He spoke the truth directly yet kindly, reminding his son of their family’s shared values and dignity, and inviting him to demonstrate responsibility and reclaim his place in that circle with a simple promise. A superb illustration of Proverbs 12:18: “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

Crowe brought healing by conclusively resolving the burning issue in his son’s heart, the fear of being sent away for lack of food. Demonstrating excellent other-engagement, he gave a simple but life-changing promise, which echoes God’s covenant with us, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).

Crowe choked up as he made his promise, reinforcing his words with subtle yet convincing emotional cues. He communicated love, forgiveness, and commitment with his words, tone of voice, eyes, facial expression and posture; he used every means God had given him to reach his son’s mind and heart and to reassure him of his complete restoration (compelling other-awareness and engagement).

Sensing the genuineness and safety of his father’s love and forgiveness, his son burst into tears from sheer relief and threw himself into his father’s arms. In a perfect climax, this wise and loving father embraced his son, lifted him up, and reassured him with these compassionate and redeeming words, “It’s OK, kid. You got a little scared. I understand.”

These are words that a son will remember and cherish to the day he dies. I know, because my father spoke almost these exact words to me when I was ten years old and just as scared as the boy in this scene. Those words ring in my ears to this day, reminding me of my father’s love, compassion, and wisdom.

Watch and Grow

This little movie clip is only three minutes long, and yet it is packed with lessons on relational wisdom. So don’t just watch this clip; learn from it. No matter how relationally clumsy your are today, by God’s grace you can develop, little by little, the same relational skills that Russell Crowe demonstrates in this brief but life-changing interaction.

Here are some questions and exercises you can use to start this process right now (you’ll get even more from them if you discuss them with a friend or in a group).

  • Practice empathy. As you reflect on what you saw in this clip, try to put yourself in the father’s place. Name every emotion you might feel as this scene unfolded.
  • Now put yourself in the son’s place. What would you feel as your father comes down the stairs? As you walk to the grocer’s in complete silence? As you leave the store and start back toward home? As your father enables you to share your deep fears? As he kneels in front of you? As he embraces you and lifts you in his arms?
  • Practice reading body language. Watch the clip again with the sound off. Note all of the emotions that both the father and son communicate not with words but with their eyes, facial expressions, posture, and body language.
  • Which of the father’s relational skills would you most like to develop? Begin praying on a daily basis for God to help you put off your old ways and to put on this new way of relating to others.
  • To enhance your God-given capacity for empathy, see Seven Steps to Empathy.
  • As would be expected in a story about boxing, this movie contains a great deal of physical violence, as well as other elements that would be unsuitable for young children. For a detailed review of its content, see Plugged In or IMDb.

Bring Relational Wisdom into Your Church, Ministry or Business

Would you like to see your entire congregation or staff develop the the kind of relational skills describe above? If so, click on the image to the right to learn more about how you can host a live, one-day seminar on relational wisdom.

— Ken Sande

Permission to distribute: Please feel free to download, print, or electronically share this message in its entirety for non-commercial purposes with as many people as you like.

© 2018 Ken Sande

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