Live Well, Do Good

New Book Inspires Readers to Compassion, Social Justice

Brandon Sun, February 6, 2011 - Zack Gross

It is sometimes hard to find inspiration when feeling overburdened by the depths of a prairie winter – cold, wind, snow and, in these days of climate change, more cloud than sun. 

That might be why bookstores load up on self-help books and diet and fitness businesses spend large portions of their advertising budgets attracting new clients in January, February and March.

A new book that has just come out and immediately rocketed onto the bestsellers list, one that is both self-help and planetary help, is Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong. 

The author is a gifted speaker and writer who began adulthood as a Roman Catholic nun but then moved into academic life producing twenty books so far that explain religious and spiritual matters to a “lay” audience.

Armstrong’s writing has included biographies of Buddha and Muhammad, and a history and explanation of the concept of God. In 2009, she developed the Charter for Compassion, calling on people around the world to follow the Golden Rule, to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The Charter is available on its own website where over 65,000 people have signed on to uphold the idea, and where one can download her Charter, tell your story of how you have exercised compassion in your life, and even order a plaque with the charter engraved.

The Charter for Compassion actually was written by a “committee” of people from around the world, representing many cultures and faiths. 

It covers from how an individual should act in a chance personal encounter all the way to how nations should interact globally.

It aims to be a “summons for creative, practical and sustained action to meet the political, moral, religious, social and cultural problems of our time” yet not to be irrelevant to or beyond the needs of the individual in our fast-paced and sometimes alienating world.

Armstrong received the 2008 TED Prize (Technology, Entertainment, Design), at their annual conference that brings together many of the world’s most avant garde speakers, giving each just 18 minutes to put across their ideas. 

The three top speakers every year are each awarded $100,000 and the granting of “One Wish to Change the World.” Her wish was to get TED’s help in creating, launching and propagating the Charter. In 2008, Armstrong also received the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medals.

Karen Armstrong begins her book by looking at how great thinkers and faiths have focused on the Golden Rule and tried to raise humankind beyond the “Four Fs” – feeding, fighting, fleeing and reproducing.

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the classic Italian author says, “We were not made to live like brutes but to pursue virtue and knowledge,” and this is Armstrong’s message, that we should practice this is private and public life.

Her twelve-step program, along the lines of many self-help formulas, takes the reader through the process to a life of compassion. 

Start with learning about compassion, its history and value and then move on to taking a long, hard look at ourselves. 

Follow that up with engaging with others – familiar and strange, close by and far away – recognizing that what we have in common is greater than what sets us apart, and ultimately learning the two most difficult lessons. First is how “to love our enemies.”  Second is how to realize how small we are.

It is a lifelong task with successes and setbacks, to “be the change we wish to see in the world,” as Gandhi said.  Our greatest enemies are not necessarily people, but rather egotism, greed and violence.  When one looks at current events in Egypt, Ivory Coast, Afghanistan and elsewhere, one knows that the Golden Rule is lost in the rubble of conflict and poverty. 

When one is victimized by corporate greed, government corruption or interpersonal dispute, we also see how far we have to go.

Says Armstrong:  “One of the chief tasks of our time must surely be to build a global community in which all peoples can live together in mutual respect.” 

While she is a retirement-aged theologian, her message is relevant to all faiths or those who don’t practice one, and to all age groups, cultures, and walks of life. 

It’s an inspiring little book about a very different New Year’s Resolution, and a website about ideas and actions that can make us feel more hope about our future.

* * * 

Zack Gross works for the Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of 40 international development organizations active in the province.
Read more of Zack's columns.

See also:

Serious Summer Reading Looks Good to Those Around You!

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