I cannot think of Karen Armstrong without then mentally reciting the opening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
And then, on Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would get nailed to anything.
Armstrong really does just want us to be nice to each other, though.
A failed Roman Catholic nun and English Professor, she is best known as an author, comparative religious historian, and recipient of the 2008 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Prize for innovative ideas. The TED Prize came with a $100,000 monetary award and Armstrong used those funds to create the Charter for Compassion, an online document calling for people of all faiths (or no faith) to “restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life” by reaffirming the golden rule, Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you.
“Not simply a statement of principle, the Charter is above all a summons to creative, practical and sustained action to meet the political, moral, religious, social and cultural problems of our time.”
In short, the Charter is a crowd-sourced, online think tank aimed at reframing any ideological extremism that ignores “the divine in each of us.”
Through its’ “Learn,” “Share,” and “Act” subheadings, we are all invited to affirm the Charter, share our thoughts and success stories around compassion, and support others as we work to develop our own personal senses of empathy “all day, every day.”
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the worst financial crisis since The Great Depression, and the continued social fragmentation of both family and community, Armstrong believes that our best hope for world peace–and individual happiness– lies in “dethroning ourselves from the center of our world” and taking care of each other…something that sounds logical though simplistic to say aloud and that is borne out by emerging science on happiness, but actually requires the intentional, life-long effort of the entire human community to achieve.
On Tuesday, January 11, I saw Karen Armstrong speak about her new book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, at the New York Public Library’s Celeste Bartos Forum on 40th Street and Fifth Avenue. (PS: Her talk was part of a larger series of discussions, lectures, and classes on the three major world faiths continuing at the library through February, and coincides with a free, online and real-world exhibition entitled Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam showcasing holy relics and codices from all three traditions.)
For those who have seen Armstrong’s 2008 TED Talk, this most-recent talk did not cover a great deal of new ground. Once again, she discussed how the idea of compassion, integral to all humanity, evolved separately in all of the worlds cultures, from Confucius’ concept of shu (consideration) and the Buddha’s call for maitri (loving kindness) and karuna (“the resolve to lift all creatures from their pain”), through to Jewish scholar Rabbi Hillel’s summation of the Torah, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor…the rest is commentary.”
However, Armstrong wants to do more than simply rehash history or discuss lofty ideals, she wants to continue to provide a concrete action plan for change. Her new book, The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, is her action plan for “being the change we want to see in the world,” and like all effective “12-Step” programs, it is set up so that the individual does not have to work alone.
“After all, we come together when we work together,” she explained.
After purchasing and reading the book, individuals are encouraged to further process and internalize its ideas by starting a reading group, joining monthly, hosted discussions on Facebook, and sharing their commitment to “activating the golden rule” (as well as any stories that result) on the Charter for Compassion’s website. Additionally, because Armstrong (who personally ascribes to no faith tradition) believes that religion can be both a source of close-minded, violent fundamentalism and a wellspring for transcendent hope, the book also includes a lengthy “Suggestions for Further Reading” appendix designed to provide historical background and address issues of scriptural interpretation.
Armstrong closed her talk with these words:
“Let us care for all creatures as a mother does her only child.”
That one sentence provided me with a perfect perspective from which to begin my own work.
My children are in their teen/pre-teen years and even on a quiet day, there is still a good amount of spirited debate that takes place in this house over chores, homework, TV rights and family obligations. Additionally, despite my intention to adopt a patient, wise, guitar-slinging Maria-Von-Trapp parenting style, it turns out that I can lose my patience more quickly than I’d like–particularly now that I am working again after 14 years as a stay-at-home parent…
At least once a week, my children and I will have to sit down, apologize to each other for becoming loud, and try to figure out how to handle whatever the conflict du jour might be. However, even before the post-mortem begins, while the stomping and ranting (and emphatic counter-wiping) is in full fury, I know that I do not want any harm to come to my children. I love them. What I want desperately at those moments is a bridge: I want us to listen to each other, respect each other, support each other. I am bonded to my children so that even as they jump on my last nerve, I am looking for that teachable moment, that mutual understanding–for all involved parties.
I want to continue to hone that evolving emotional mechanism and bring it to all of my relationships. That is why I am reading Karen Armstrong’s book and planning on participating in the online discussions…and it is why I believe that you should, too.