Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

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Photo: Andrea Schwalm

I cannot think of Karen Armstrong without then mentally reciting the opening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

And then, on Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would get nailed to anything.

Armstrong really does just want us to be nice to each other, though.

A failed Roman Catholic nun and English Professor, she is best known as an author, comparative religious historian, and recipient of the 2008 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Prize for innovative ideas. The TED Prize came with a $100,000 monetary award and Armstrong used those funds to create the Charter for Compassion, an online document calling for people of all faiths (or no faith) to “restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life” by reaffirming the golden rule, Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you.

“Not simply a statement of principle, the Charter is above all a summons to creative, practical and sustained action to meet the political, moral, religious, social and cultural problems of our time.”

Intimate yet awe-inspiring: The Celeste Bartos Forum in the Stephen Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm

In short, the Charter is a crowd-sourced, online  think tank aimed at reframing any ideological extremism that ignores “the divine in each of us.”

Through its’ “Learn,” “Share,” and “Act” subheadings, we are all invited to affirm the Charter, share our thoughts and success stories around compassion, and support others as we work to develop our own personal senses of empathy “all day, every day.”

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the worst financial crisis since The Great Depression, and the continued social fragmentation of both family and community, Armstrong believes that our  best hope for world peace–and individual happiness– lies in “dethroning ourselves from the center of our world” and taking care of each other…something that sounds logical though simplistic to say aloud and that is borne out by emerging science on happiness, but actually requires the intentional, life-long effort of the entire human community to achieve.

On Tuesday, January 11, I saw Karen Armstrong speak about her new book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, at the New York Public Library’s Celeste Bartos Forum on 40th Street and Fifth Avenue. (PS: Her talk was part of a larger series of discussions, lectures, and classes on the three major world faiths continuing at the library through February, and coincides with a free, online and real-world exhibition entitled Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam showcasing holy relics and codices from all three traditions.)

For those who have seen Armstrong’s 2008 TED Talk, this most-recent talk did not cover a great deal of new ground. Once again, she discussed how the idea of compassion, integral to all humanity, evolved separately in all of the worlds cultures, from Confucius’ concept of shu (consideration) and the Buddha’s call for maitri (loving kindness) and karuna (“the resolve to lift all creatures from their pain”), through to Jewish scholar Rabbi Hillel’s summation of the Torah, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor…the rest is commentary.”

Question and Answer Session With Guy on Right Coming Out of Nowhere. Photo credit: Andrea Schwalm

However, Armstrong wants to do more than simply rehash history or discuss lofty ideals, she wants to continue to provide a concrete action plan for change. Her new book, The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, is her action plan for “being the change we want to see in the world,” and like all effective “12-Step” programs, it is set up so that the individual does not have to work alone.

“After all, we come together when we work together,” she explained.

After purchasing and reading the book, individuals are encouraged to further process and internalize its ideas by starting a reading group, joining monthly, hosted discussions on Facebook, and sharing their commitment to “activating the golden rule” (as well as any stories that result) on the Charter for Compassion’s website. Additionally, because Armstrong (who personally ascribes to no faith tradition) believes that religion can be both a source of close-minded, violent fundamentalism and a wellspring for transcendent hope, the book also includes a lengthy “Suggestions for Further Reading” appendix designed to provide historical background and address issues of scriptural interpretation.

Armstrong closed her talk with these words:

“Let us care for all creatures as a mother does her only child.”

That one sentence provided me with a perfect perspective from which to begin my own work.

My children are in their teen/pre-teen years and even on a quiet day, there is still a good amount of spirited debate that takes place in this house over chores, homework, TV rights and family obligations. Additionally, despite my intention to adopt a patient, wise, guitar-slinging Maria-Von-Trapp parenting style, it turns out that I can lose my patience more quickly than I’d like–particularly now that I am working again after 14 years as a stay-at-home parent…

At least once a week, my children and I will have to sit down, apologize to each other for becoming loud, and try to figure out how to handle whatever the conflict du jour might be. However, even before the post-mortem begins, while the stomping and ranting (and emphatic counter-wiping) is in full fury, I know that I do not want any harm to come to my children. I love them. What I want desperately at those moments is a bridge: I want us to listen to each other, respect each other, support each other. I am bonded to my children so that even as they jump on my last nerve, I am looking for that teachable moment, that mutual understanding–for all involved parties.

I want to continue to hone that evolving emotional mechanism and bring it to all of my relationships. That is why I am reading Karen Armstrong’s book and planning on participating in the online discussions…and it is why I believe that you should, too.

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8 thoughts on “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

  1. Thank you Andrea for a terribly important post. I’ll be sharing it widely.
    I’ve read several of Karen Armstrong’s books. Her work is groundbreaking. Let’s all be that girl who ” finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place.”

    1. My I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
      The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
      The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.
      http://CultureOfEmpathy.com

      Let’s Find 1 Million People Who Want to Build a Culture of Empathy and Compassion
      http://Causes.com/Empathy

  2. “Let us care for all creatures as a mother does for her child.”

    Control them, abuse them, deceive them, and treat them as a means to make up for your failures by trying to live your life through them?

    Just looking for some clarity here.

    (I suppose I could add “lock them in your car and shove the car into a lake and then lie to the police and say a black man kidnapped them”, or “sell them to your boyfriend as sex slaves” or just “beat them until they stop crying, mostly because they’re dead”, but I suppose I’d be gilding the lily at that point…Oh, I forgot “drown them at birth if they’re not the gender your culture values”. That’s a good one, too.)

    Seriously, people. This kind of fortune cookie pablum gets ANY recognition at all, nevermind huge cash prizes? The frak? Is that really the best we can do in terms of philosophy and ethics? Feel-good, content-free drivel that challenges no one, requires no thought, and can be mindlessly parroted as a way of making oneself feel morally superior without actually inspiring any action or leading to any kind of concrete plan or ethical system with clearly defined boundaries, goals, and right and wrong actions? What, did all those “visualize world peace” and “commit random acts of kindness” bumper stickers not work, so now we all need to try some new vapid slogan?

    If we have to reduce the complexity of morality to a phrase which can fit in a tweet, I’ll stick with: “Mind your own business and keep your hands to yourself.”

    PS:I keep wanting to sign off, but the stupidity and meaninglessness of that phrase keeps gnawing at me. All creatures? Cats? Dogs? Cows? Chickens? Flies? Lice? Ants? Smallpox? Every time I shower, I boil uncounted mites and other parasites alive, probably not what Armstrong had as the ideal of motherly love. So should I not shower? (You might want to discuss this with my friends and especially my wife). Or are some creatures less, uhm, mother-love-worthy than others? Or is the phrase basically useless if anyone actually tries to use it as a touchstone for making complex and difficult ethical decisions that involve weighing good and bad in differing amounts for different people, which are the decisions we need to make every day and which are the ones we need a REAL philosophy to guide us in, not trite slogans? Or are we not supposed to actually think about it and try to reason from it to a course of action in a particular crisis, but just sort of keep it floating around us as a mantra we can recite to let ourselves know we’re Good People?

    1. @Lizard: Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a piece on compassion inspire such vitriol. As we might say in another 12-step group, “Keep coming back. It works if you work it.” Of course, I’m sure you also find those words “feel-good, content-free drivel that challenges no one, requires no thought, and can be mindlessly parroted as a way of making oneself feel morally superior without actually inspiring any action or leading to any kind of concrete plan or ethical system with clearly defined boundaries, goals, and right and wrong actions.” (I do admire the clarify of that long sentence, though.)

      But seriously — compassion is hardly a feel-good concept, although it can be treated as such by new agers of lesser intelligence and esteem than TED prize winner Karen Armstrong, who knows more about the world’s religions than I (and, I would imagine, than you). But more than just her intelligence is at work in this book — fortunately, she displays the compassion that she advocates using (to use your words) a “concrete plan.. with clearly defined boundaries, goals, and right and wrong actions.” Her plan may not be to your liking, but similar plans have kept addicts and alcoholics like myself clean and sober rather than dead or homeless. Armstrong is smart enough to adapt her own scholarship to the 12-step concept, which itself is rich in its simplicity, as it boils several millennia’s worth of moral and ethical philosophical thought into a universally workable program for people of any religion or no religion. Your getting stuck on “all creatures” completely misses the larger point of the quote you chose to attack out of context — a quote that has nothing to do with boiling uncounted mites while showering and everything to do with the deceptive simplicity of the Buddhist concept of paying attention.

      Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn’s war-era School of Youth for Social Services — which rebuilt villages, established schools and health-care facilities, and housed the homeless — hinged on simple compassion for those who suffered on both sides. It’s pretty much the cornerstone of his philosophy and is the antithesis of “content-free drivel.”

      1. Thank you, Mark, for weighing in. I agree, compassion is not a lightweight ‘feel good’ concept, at least not in my experience. Being compassionate is complicated–it forces me to look closely at my behavior and thought processes, compels me to sometimes speak out when it would be socially expedient to remain quiet, asks me to be patient and greet people with good will. These are not easy things–I am not a saint, I have a temper and strong opinions and a sizable ego. Compassion provides me with an architecture to create good, despite my flaws–but I find: it is work.

  3. Just one point: the moral credo Armstrong is actually endorsing, was actually rewarded for reframing in her Charter for Compassion, is the golden rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

  4. I come a little late to this party, having only just begun following Karen Armstrong’s 12 steps, but I enjoyed this article, and I believe it is a great, consice summing up of the goals of the book and movement.

    I also think the comments are wonderful examples of oversimplification on the parts of those unwilling to look deeper, and the knowlege of those who do.

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