Book Review: Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
Posted October 11, 2012on:
Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Anchor Books, 2010, 222 pp.
This book became a part of our Macedonian Ministries group that went to the Holy Land last winter. We continue to meet, and are charged to undertake a community project. We were all moved by our pilgrimage experience to promote understanding across lines of race, religion and culture, and we have begun to associate ourselves with the Compassionate Cities movement in our area.
The Charter for Compassion was the result of Karen Armstrong’s MacArther “Genius” grant a few years ago. She used the time, publicity and financial resources from that grant to launch a worldwide movement of compassion. Using an interactive website, she solicited input from thousands of people across the world along with a Council of Conscience composed of religious leaders from six major faith traditions. They created a brief Charter for Compassion that states, clearly and concisely, that “we urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world.” (8) The charter is the catalyst for a movement of people across the world to intentionally grow compassionate practices. At the website, you can sign on to the charter as an individual, a corporation, a city or a university. Our group is contemplating what it would mean to be “compassionate congregations” as part of this movement.
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life is a longer reflection on the theme of compassion, with an emphasis on steps we all can take to practice compassion more deeply in our everyday interactions. This book is far different from Armstrong’s other books, like her broad history of religion or the west’s holiest city. While her intellect shines as always, this book is not a work of research, it is a work of spiritual discipline.
Armstrong lays out a program to follow to build compassion. The first step starts with learning about compassion, and moves through steps like empathy, mindfulness and action, culminating in the effort to love your enemies. Each chapter explores one step, and Armstrong mixes together perspectives from the various faith traditions with simple exercises that anyone can undertake in their daily lives. The book is not a spiritual masterpiece with the profundity of a guru, but it is a helpful tool to grow compassion in our lives. While I bristled a bit at the parallels to other twelve-step programs (“work this step until you are ready to move to the next chapter”), I found myself contemplating some of the questions and exercises long after I completed reading the book. The second chapter, “Looking at Your Own World,” asks us to begin practicing compassion at home—within our own families, neighborhoods and workplaces. I found this to be a powerful concept in my daily contemplation, and inspiration for a recent sermon.
In this rancorous political season, it’s hard to even ask for civility, much less for compassion. Yet compassion is not about party, race, religion or political persuasion. It is something that every Christian, certainly, can aspire to follow in our lives. This book has inspired me to be more attentive to the practice of compassion in my own life.