‘Twelve steps to a Compassionate Life’ – By Karen Armstrong

Rehabilitating the reputation of religion around the world 

Review by Donna Bailey – Nurse

Karen Armstrong is a popular religious scholar whose particular gift has been to develop a compelling ethos and relevant language for the role of faith in contemporary society. A former Roman Catholic nun, born in Britain in 1944, Armstrong has written more than 20 books exploring the history of religion and the unknowable nature of God.

Armstrong’s is a welcome voice. She engages readers on behalf of ordinary believers driven into the closet by popular perceptions about religious faith. Organized religion in our society has become associated with wilful ignorance, racism, violence and selfishness. In contemporary U.S. politics, for example, it can appear as if the most outspoken evangelical voices exhibit the least generosity, appallingly indifferent to “outsiders” and utterly devoid of compassion for those we might describe as the lame and the weak.

In truth, it has been Armstrong’s slightly controversial preoccupation to present compassion as the central organizing principle of the great monotheistic faiths. In her informative and congenial new book, she demonstrates how to make compassion a component of our daily lives. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life derives from Armstrong’s 2009 Charter for Compassion, in which she called on people around the world to follow the golden rule. According to Armstrong, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, requires, above all, empathy. In Twelve Steps, Armstrong expresses more than a common desire for a peaceful and equitable planet: She displays her aim to rehabilitate the reputation of religion around the world.

Much as in one of Reverend Norman Vincent Peale’s religious how-to classics, each chapter in Armstrong’s book covers a specific step in the evolution of a compassionate character. However, few of the steps are predictable–and the approach, not at all. Readers are quite expecting to hear all about the need to love one another, but it is surprising, in a book on compassion, to discover that she also emphasizes love of self. In an excellent chapter, Armstrong draws upon Rabbi Albert Friedlander’s experiences growing up in Nazi Germany:

“As a child he was bewildered and distressed by the vicious anti-Semitic propaganda that assailed him on all sides. One night, when he was about eight years old, he deliberately lay awake and made a list of all his good qualities. He told himself firmly that he was not what the Nazis said, that he had talents and special gifts of heart and mind, which he enumerated to himself one by one.”

Armstrong insists that harshness toward our selves often translates, quite dangerously, into harshness and lack of compassion toward others.

By dint of being human, we may imagine we possess an innate understanding of compassion. But, according to Armstrong, the feeling does not necessarily come naturally and is therefore a subject worthy of serious study.

In the opening chapter, she charts the development of the golden rule in Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. She stuffs us full of facts. It is a bit overwhelming, if still engaging, though one wishes Armstrong possessed a greater willingness to self-edit. A few examples can go a long way.

Yet for all her emphasis on knowledge, Armstrong believes that education can only lay the groundwork for action. Compassion — like love — is a verb, she insists. In a chapter called “Look at Your Own World,” she asks us to be mindful of how we treat members of our families and fellow workers. How does compassion play out in our schools, our neighbourhoods? Armstrong believes in the trickle-up theory, as opposed to the trickle-down: That every compassionate encounter, no matter how small, can make the world a better place.

This may sound as though Armstrong is oversimplifying, being trite, except she really does not think of compassion as an easy path; she does not see it as particularly rewarding in the short term. Indeed, she acknowledges that loving your enemies–showing them compassion — is exceedingly galling to the flesh. Loving your enemies makes you feel vulnerable and even irresponsible. Certainly, our political leaders rarely consider the option.

But for Armstrong, there really is no alternative. In personal or political situations, never-ending vengeance leads to never-ending strife. In the end, loving your enemies constitutes the ultimate act of compassion, requiring that leap of faith, so central to the mystery of religious belief.

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