Review by Philip Harvey
“All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao.” Thus Karen Armstrong sets the scene for this appeal and instruction on compassion. (Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, by Karen Armstrong, Bodley Head) She is quick to define compassion not as pity, as some would say, but as the reason and goal of the Golden Rule: Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you, or in its positive form, Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself. Further, compassion is to be shown not just to your own group but to everybody, even your enemies.
This way is central in the ministry and teaching of Jesus but Armstrong, an historian of religion, locates its earliest promotion in Confucius. Really it means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, empathising with another’s suffering. The Golden Rule asks us to look into our hearts and discover what gives us pain, then to refuse under any circumstances to inflict that pain on anybody else. The author presents the possibility of this principle being achieved by anyone, whatever their religious, philosophical or ethical tradition.
She is at the same time aware of humans’ ruthless selfishness, which she ascribes to the reptile part of our brain. As she writes, “wholly intent on personal survival, [humans] were motivated by mechanisms that neuroscientists have called the ‘Four Fs’: feeding, fighting, fleeing and – for want of a more basic word – reproduction.” These forces are there within us and it is well that we are self-aware. They are readily on display when we look around our world. She observes correctly that many people today would rather be right than compassionate.
But Armstrong insists that we are hard-wired for compassion as well as cruelty. She reminds us that humans are more radically dependent on love than any other species. Our brains have evolved to be caring and to care, such that a lack of care for an individual is thought an impairment. Armstrong even goes further, saying that in our divided world, full of hatred, disgust, greed and vengeance, compassion is in our interests. We are in a personal position to make a difference.
We are addicted to our egotism. The book sets out twelve steps to deal with this addiction, clearly modelled on the AA program, though in this case all of us are candidates for the course. Those brought up in Christian tradition will recognise the steps, though one of the beauties of the book is how Armstrong draws as well on the other religions for guidance. For example, to learn about compassion she draws on the Upanishad sages and Buddha in search of Enlightenment. We must learn to look into our own world, and ourselves. Compassion for others means compassion for ourselves: Love your neighbour as yourself.
Then, in order to find empathy we must use our imagination. She cites the Dalai Lama that we need to learn “the inability to bear the sight of another’s distress.” We must cultivate mindfulness. To open our awareness of how little we really know – even those of us who know nearly everything – she recommends the Socratic dialogue, the purpose of which is to get you to a place where you meet your ignorance and so start the real process of learning. Muhammad is used an an example of concern for everybody, for it is he who got the Arabs to find mutual respect, thus breaking down tribalism.
Knowledge dispels prejudice. One step asks us actively and at length to learn about a country or religion about which we know nothing. The crucial step of recognition of the other is told through the story of Abraham’s hospitality for the three strangers, who prove to be an appearance of God. She then considers another tough one, the challenge from Jesus to love our enemies. This act of compassion breaks the pattern of revenge, disarms the enemy, and undoes hatred, both theirs and ours.
Never at any time does Karen Armstrong say this is easy, but if we are committed to each of the steps we will become more compassionate and, no doubt, wiser individuals. In other words, the book is for everyone.
Her work in protecting religion from fundamentalism and modern ignorance is borne out in this book. She chooses a core teaching common to the religions and gives it to humanity. But this is not a naïve book about shared beliefs. It confronts us with the real work of learning compassion and of being compassionate which, to paraphrase Saint Paul, has to more than just a nice noise.
This review first appeared in The Melbourne Anglican