TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) honored Karen Armstrong in 2007 with $100,000 to help her advance her ideas of compassion. Informed by her deep conviction that the world’s religions have more in common than independent truth, she chose to strike out to create an inter-faith human dialogue on what it means to be compassionate and how, as modern beings, we can learn to observe compassion throughout our dealings with each other and the earth itself.
Her latest book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (2011), tells the story of receiving the TED award and using the money granted to her to begin a series of meetings among religious leaders that would ultimately lead to the “Charter for Compassion.” The drafting process included notable leaders of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism and relied on each tradition’s version of the “golden rule” to formulate a call “upon all men and women 1) to restore compassion to the center of morality and religion; 2) to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate; 3) to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures; 4) to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity; and 5) to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings – even those regarded as enemies.” (p. 7) The charter was launched and began with sixty locations around the world adopting the charter on November 12, 2009. More have followed since 2009 and, perhaps, the charter will begin to have the transforming impact that the authors’ sought as more people hear of the charter throughout the world.
Armstrong started her life as a Catholic Nun but grew to relish understanding the world’s many religions. While she references many diverse faith perspectives throughout her book, I was most attracted to her references to Islam. She has made a commitment in her speaking (I saw her at Georgetown in Qatar last spring) and writing to provide alternative, and in her estimation more accurate, characterizations of all religions but she has focused much of her energy on Islam. One of the Arab world contrasts she posed was between muruwah (courage and endurance) and hilm (mercy). The tribal and difficult life circumstances of many in the Arab world long ago required muruwah and a relentless commitment to protecting and avenging any aggression, or wrong perpetrated, against one’s family/tribe. By contrast, the Qur’an advocated for patience, forbearing, and merciful conduct that protected the disadvantaged, orphan, widow and destitute. This example was used to demonstrate the first step toward compassion – learning about it.
One of the examples she used to demonstrate humankind’s struggle for empathy was the ancient Greek festival of Dionysus. During the annual festival, all citizens were more or less required to attend public plays during which old myths were reflected in contemporary examples, resulting in a public meditation on key issues of values and ethics. These plays were intended to put suffering onstage so that the audience could begin to empathize with the plight of the “other.” (p. 93) Thus, Dionysus’ role as the god of transformation was formulated as first a journey into self, then beginning to understand others, and eventually being able to see themselves in the circumstance of others. This example was used in the fourth chapter that focused on empathy.
The seventh step, “how little we know,” encouraged curiosity in understanding others as a way to increase compassion. As she explained, so often we have our own pre-determined view of others and, instead of allowing ourselves to absorb new information and insight, we judge others in order to substantiate our own bias. She bemoaned that there is a certain mystery about others’ ways of thinking and living that is turned to sacrilege as we attempt to “pluck out” the point we wish to use to serve our own agenda. (p. 127)
There are many jewels throughout Armstrong’s book. It is short, easy and engaging to read, and hopefully will be read by many.