Review of Karen Armstrong's "Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life"

Sunday, January 16, 2011




By Karen Armstrong

Knopf. 222 pp. $22.95

You might think you're a compassionate person: Maybe you give time and money to charity, routinely make sacrifices for the well-being of your family and friends, and try to avoid unfairly judging others. But when asked to send kind thoughts and follow up with acts of friendship, compassion, joy and fair-mindedness to your enemies, you may realize that you're as self-centered as anyone else in our me-first modern world.

In "Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life," Karen Armstrong, a prominent and prolific religious historian, offers a prescription for the world's addiction to egotism that might sound counterintuitive. After all, her key to making the world more caring and more whole is found in religion, which also happens to contribute to many of the world's divisions.

She uses the universality of the Golden Rule - which she follows on its course from Confucius and the Buddha to modern-day monotheism - to create a thought-provoking program for spreading compassion that goes well beyond this book: Her Charter for Compassion has more than 60,000 signatories worldwide. Simply put, Armstrong's 12 steps aim to "retrain our responses and form mental habits that are kinder, gentler and less fearful of others." We are to achieve this by doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. And by loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Everyone knows this two-part rule, but how often do we practice it? Armstrong presents the Golden Rule as not just an ideal but as a 21st-century necessity. The global economy, she points out, is so interconnected that everyone is a neighbor. National boundaries are essentially meaningless, as war affects financial markets around the world and one group's suffering is likely to provoke vengeance and more harm. "So if we harm our neighbors," Armstrong writes, "we also inflict damage on ourselves."

Armstrong exhorts readers to "make space for the other" in their minds and speech, calling for Socratic compassionate discourse that leads to insight rather than speech devoted to persuading others to agree with us. "We do not engage in many dialogues like this today," she writes, adding that "it is not enough for us to seek the truth; we also want to defeat and even humiliate our opponents." Coming to an argument ready to lose or change our convictions is a tough mind-set to adopt in this hyper-partisan world, but Armstrong stresses that realizing how little we know can be the gateway to absorbing new knowledge and overturning destructive stereotypes.

Leaning on the wisdom of disparate faiths and belief systems, Armstrong lays out a pluralistic and, ultimately, secular way to spread compassion that's easy to believe in. The challenge lies in following it.

-Lisa Bonos

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