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Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

A review of religious historian Karen Armstrong's step-by-step guide.

Noting that the golden rule is a method rather than a belief, Armstrong advocates that we adopt Socrates’ “compassionate discourse” as a way to get along: “Each participant should make a ‘place for the other’ in his mind, listening intently and sympathetically to the ideas of his partners in dialogue and allowing them to unsettle his own convictions,” she writes, careful to include that quoted snippet from Plato. Such an approach would be a far cry from the current no-holds-barred style of political debate, but most people agree it’s a model worth striving for.

At first blush, some of Armstrong’s recommendations seem to bear little on the quest to become more compassionate. In “Knowledge,” for example — her 10th step — she asks us to challenge our preconceived notions by learning as much as we can about another country or religious tradition, and by reading up on the current tension between the West and the Islamic world. She provides an extensive reading list to accomplish just that, exhorting the reader, “Do not leave this tenth step until you feel that you are beginning to change your mind.”

Those on either shore of the tea-party debate might find it too much to ask that they immerse themselves in the opposing side’s viewpoint. But it’s an excellent discipline — a way to keep us from dismissing someone as the evil “other” merely because they disagree with us. Without question, Armstrong’s notion of truly listening to our enemy is vital, though vexing.

In 2007, Armstrong won a $100,000 prize from the private nonprofit group TED (for Technology, Entertainment, Design) that included the chance to be granted one wish for a better world. She asked TED to help her launch “a Charter for Compassion that would be written by leading thinkers from a variety of major faiths and would restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life.” Thousands of people worldwide contributed ideas for the draft charter; the final version, which you can view at CharterforCompassion.org, was written by a distinguished group of clergy and laypeople representing six faiths.

In the end, Twelve Steps is not merely a prescription for being more tolerant and loving (though that would be an accomplishment in itself). It is also a call to action, and “a lifelong project.” Armstrong is pleased to help show the way — and those about to set foot on this difficult but important path may find her new book a useful first step of its own.

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