Mike Kueber's Blog

June 11, 2011

Sunday Book Review #34 – Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong is a former nun from Great Britain who gained fame in 1993 from her book titled A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  That book focused on the commonalities of those religions, and this book continues in that vein by describing the prominence that all religions give to compassion.

Armstrong won a TED award in 2007 and used the award to create and propagate a Charter for Compassion that began with, “The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical, and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.”

Her current book – Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life – is a self-help guide to becoming more compassionate.  Armstrong quickly clarifies that her use of the term compassion is not the same as pity or an uncritical, sentimental benevolence.  Rather, she means “to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to feel her pain as though it were our own, and to enter generously into his point of view.” [Did you notice that Armstrong decided to split the gender references in the previous sentence – one for the girls and another for the guys?  She has a reputation for being politically correct, and another example of this is her usage of BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) year-numbering system because it is more inclusive than the Christian BC and AD system.]

Armstrong further defined, “That is why compassion is aptly summed up in the Golden Rule, which asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstances whatsoever, to inflict pain on anybody else.  Compassion can be defined,
therefore, as an attitude of principled, consistent altruism

I was attracted to this book because I have always known that, for whatever reason, I feel very little compassion.  Unlike Bill Clinton, I do not feel your pain.  And Armstrong’s reference to altruism is especially apt because I have done a lot of reading in past months on the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who often disparages altruism.  In fact, more than a year ago I posted an entry to my blog that contrasted Ayn Rand’s self-esteem with Mitt Romney’s altruism.

Although I accept Ayn Rand’s admonition that a person should never live for the sake of another person, nor ask another person to live for theirs, I also agree with Mitt Romney that people’s lives are better if they believe in a purpose greater than themselves – such as our family, community, or country.

Armstrong explains the Rand/Romney dichotomy by declaring that Randian egotism “was bequeathed to us by reptiles that struggled out of the primal slime some 500 million years ago.  Wholly intent on personal survival, these creatures were motivated by mechanisms that neuroscientists have called the ‘Four Fs’: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and – for want of a more basic word – reproduction.”

Although these neurological impulses, which are located in the hypothalamus at the base of the “old brain,” are powerful, they can be overcome, according to Armstrong, by our “new brain” neocortex, which provides us with “the reasoning powers that enable us to reflect on the world and ourselves, and to stand back from these instinctive, primitive passions.”

What are Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life:

  1. Learn about compassion – “Instead of being a library of disparate texts composed over a millennium [like the Bible], the Qur’an was created in a mere twenty-three years and must be seen as a homogeneous whole.”
  2. Look at your own world – “As we seek to create a more compassionate world, we too must think outside the box, reconsider major categories of our time, and find new ways of dealing with today’s challenges.”
  3. Compassion for yourself – “It is essential to be aware of our misdeeds and take responsibility for them.  But we should also realize that the rage, fear, hatred, and greed that make us behave badly derive from the brain we inherited from our reptilian ancestors.”
  4. Empathy – “But when the old brain is co-opted by the new, the result can be disastrous.  Reason was an ambiguous tool, because, as we have seen throughout history, it can be used to find a logically sound rationale for actions that violate our humanity.”
  5. Mindfulness – “Yet we should also take careful note of how unhappy these primitive emotions make us.”
  6. Action – “Try to catch yourself before you make the brilliantly wounding remark, asking yourself how you would like to be on the receiving end of such sarcasm.”
  7. How little we know – “[Notwithstanding science and technology,] unknowing remains an essential part of the human condition.”
  8. How should we speak to one another – “when making an effort to understand something strange and alien to you, it is important to assume that the speaker share the same human nature as yourself and that, even though your belief systems may differ, you both have the same idea of what constitutes truth.”
  9. Concern for everybody – “[All religious traditions] have at least one strand that insists that we cannot confine our compassion to our own group: we must also reach out in some way to the stranger and the foreigner – even to the enemy.”
  10. Knowledge – “When we are about to criticize another nation or religious tradition, we should get into the habit of catching ourselves and asking whether our country may have been responsible for a similar abuse in the past.”
  11. Recognition – “Reaching out generously to embrace the pain of another yields an ekstasis, because in such a moment we are leaving our egotistic selves behind.”
  12. Love your enemies – “Try to wish for your enemy’s well-being and happiness; try to develop a sense of responsibility for your enemy’s pain.  This is the supreme test of compassion.”

Throughout the book, Armstrong quotes from a variety of philosophers and religious leaders – Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, the Buddha, Confucius, Mother Teresa, Socrates, and Aristotle.  One of the most frequently quoted is Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “We must ourselves become the change that we wish to see in the world.”  Sound familiar?  It reminds me of President Obama’s famous campaign slogan, “We are the change that we seek,” and I wonder why Obama is given credit for coining the phrase.  Just wondering.

Another interesting tidbit in the book – Armstrong noted that between 800 to 200 BC (called the Axial Age by German philosopher Karl Jaspers) a religious revolution occurred in four distinct regions of the world:

  1. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism on the Indian sub-continent;
  2. Confucianism and Daoism in China;
  3. Monotheism in the Middle East; and
  4. Philosophical rationalism in Greece.

Armstrong says that Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are latter-day flowerings and concludes that “we have never surpassed the insights of the Axial Age.”  Furthermore, all of these traditions “agree that compassion is natural to human beings, that it is the fulfillment of human nature, and that in calling us to set ego aside in a consistently empathetic consideration of others, it can introduce us to a dimension of existence that transcends our normal self-bound state.

Whereas a cynic might suggest that the Axial Age supports the theory that if God hadn’t created man, man would have created God, Armstrong argues that “the fact that this ideal surfaced in all these faiths independently suggests that it reflects something essential to the structure of our humanity.

That makes sense to me.



  1. Thanks for sharing points from Karen Armstrong.. I read her book, “The Case for God” about a year ago and was impressed with the depth and breadth of her knowledge of different religious traditions. If taken seriously and acted upon, I think her emphasis on compassion could go far in reducing the conflicts among individuals, groups, and nations. Dogmatism, and unwillingness to listen, presents a real danger in a world with diminishing resources.

    Comment by Richard Markham — June 15, 2011 @ 9:47 am | Reply

    • Just listened to American Theology by Kevin Phillips. He describes a distressing situation suffused with dogmatism.

      Comment by Mike Kueber — June 21, 2011 @ 6:45 pm | Reply

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