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Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

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

The Jan. 8 shooting in Tucson, Ariz., unleashed a national outpouring of compassion for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her fellow victims. But if we were to apply the lessons spelled out in a new book — Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by former nun Karen Armstrong — we would go much further than that. Armstrong would have us feel compassion for Jared Loughner, the accused killer of six. She would have Democrats feel compassion for Republicans, and vice versa. Indeed, writes Armstrong, as denizens of the global village we must "make allies of our enemies" around the world.

Fuzzy thinking from a misguided idealist? Hardly. Armstrong, a historian of religions, has written more than 20 books. She has studied and critiqued Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, and her scholarship shows on every page of Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, wherein we find her quoting the ancient Greeks, Shakespeare, the Koran, the Hebrew Bible and Socrates, among others.

Compassion is not the same as pity, Armstrong points out. She examines the word’s Greek and Latin roots to reveal why compassion means “to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to feel her pain as if it were our own.”

Is such a magnanimous sentiment relevant — or even possible — today? “In many ways,” Armstrong concedes, “compassion is antithetical to our modern way of life.” But the fact that the world’s major religions arrived at the importance of compassion via separate paths suggests the quality “reflects something essential to the structure of our humanity.” Armstrong is convinced that humans have a natural capacity for compassion — just as we do for cruelty — and that training and practice can help the compassionate side win out.

As humans practice compassion, says Armstrong, they must strive to override what neuroscientists have dubbed the “four F’s”: feeding, fighting, fleeing and  — well, let’s call it reproduction. These ego-driven instincts have been central to the human brain for millennia, so we needn’t castigate ourselves for them. Indeed, self-compassion is an important early part of the 12-step program to a more compassionate life that the author lays out in these pages: We cannot feel compassion for the suffering of others until we become fully aware of our own. The 12-step framework (detailed at the end of this review) is intentionally borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous, says Armstrong, because “we are addicted to our egotism.”

Given Armstrong’s deep academic training — she studied English literature at Oxford before embarking on the life of a religious scholar — it’s no surprise that her recommended first step is “Learn about compassion.” To that end, she recaps the teachings of every major faith on the subject. The realization that compassion is a common thread in all religions predisposes us to feel empathetic toward those from other traditions.

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.

Here are Karen Armstrong's "12 Steps to a Compassionate Life":

  1. Learn about compassion: Study the place of compassion in the world's major faiths.
  2. Look at your own world: Start with compassion for your community, and assess the potential for change.
  3. Compassion for yourself: You must love yourself before you can love others.
  4. Empathy: Allow life's suffering to invade your heart and mind so you can feel empathy for others.
  5. Mindfulness: Observe your own behavior and see that the cause of your suffering is not others, but rather your own anger.
  6. Action: Start to act in accordance with the golden rule.
  7. How little we know: Make place for other views and feelings in your mind and heart.
  8. How should we speak to one another? Learn to express a strong conviction with compassion.
  9. Concern for everybody: Contemplate the world's interdependence, and make room for the more distant "other."
  10. Knowledge: Immerse yourself in another culture and learn to appreciate it fully.
  11. Recognition: Examine your world, find a need that only you can fulfill, and start to help.
  12. Love your enemies: The final step signals an end to tribalism and a move to selfless compassion.


Joan Mooney is a Washington, D.C.–based writer. Her reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun and many other publications.


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