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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.

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