Karen Armstrong’s “Twelve Steps…” in the Quest for Greater Compassion:

Some reading recently finished for fun: Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, suggests ways to increase compassion by transcending cultural, financial and personal barriers, as well as overcoming ego of individual self. As a prior Roman Catholic sister, her writing includes both religious and secular concepts.

Karen says, “Religion is at its best when it helps us to ask questions and holds us in a state of wonder — and then arguable at its worst when it tries to answer them authoritatively and dogmatically” (118). All religions offer positives and negatives. Karen encourages comparative study of religion. Learning about another religion is not suggestive of conversion, but rather gives insight into the expression of compassion found in all faiths. If we can utilize compassionate teaching found in Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, etc., then our personal compassion gains greater form of expression.

Other concepts are more secular. Karen suggets how to debate ideas fairly, but first says, “…before you embark on an argument or a debate, ask yourself honestly if you are ready to change your mind” (142). Argument for the sake of argument rarely advances understanding; it leads to anger and alienation. Growth is only possible when we can truly be open to the opinion of another.

Finally, Twelve Steps… begins by stating a fault of our age: “Many people today, it seems, would rather be right than compassionate” (14). This is a daily occurance in personal and professional relationships as well as online: “What I said was unkind, but it was true… My blog comment was cruel, but I was right.” Yes, truth is important, but 90% of the time we are merely trying to win, “be right,” or appear more intelligent: “Can you really back up everything you said in the heat of the moment? Did you want to inflict pain” (142)?

In my own life I have witnessed strength in the least likely of places: rarely is it from the person shouting the loudest. As Karen relates: “A life that consistently refuses to succumb to the temptation of hatred has an enduring power of its own” (183).

This was introspective, practical and a heartening read. I would recommend it to anyone interested in comparative religion or looking to practice a compassionate life with the added benefit of improving their people skills.

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