I’ve started going to *church. Don’t panic. I’m still an atheist: it’s a Unitarian church, so my minister is an atheist, too. If you thought all us athesists were just running around eating babies you might not have realized that I (certainly don’t want to speak for all athesists) do believe in things – I just don’t believe in God, an afterlife, divine-whatever. Instead I believe in community, in our collective and individual need to make meaning. Anyway, this year the congregation has been reading Karen Armstrong’s The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and many of the sermons have picked up on themes from the book. Wanting to be the best at church (and earn a gold star at the optional book group discussion) I overcame my instinctual resistance to non-fiction and to a book that appeared – at first – dangerously self-helpy (a post for another day on my objections to self-help books) and gave it a go.
The twelve steps can be neatly summarized (and are by Armstrong) in “do unto others as you would have done unto you.” What makes it an interesting read from a religious studies perspective is the lengths at which Armstrong goes to include a diversity of religious perspectives (though no Unitarians?) on the “Golden Rule”. Her attempt to illustrate the similiarities among not just religions, but a sort of common humanity that has, as part of its nature (she argues), compassion, empathy and care, leads her to close readings of a range of religious, political and literary texts. Each chapter offers a “step” on the path to a more compassionate life. Steps like “empathy,” “self compassion,” or “understanding the limits of our knowledge” and “learning more about others.” With each step she offers daily exercises for extending compassion (indeed she makes a repeated comparison between training for a race or a ballet, and training compassion – that is, she suggests compassion is both an inherent quality and one that needs to be cultivated) like meditating on an enemy and extending to that enemy care and empathy. Of all the steps I found the chapter on ’empathy’ most resonant, and probably because it urges reading literature as a possible means to grow empathetic understanding (a repeated argument I’ve made here on the purpose of reading).
So what did I think of the book? Would I recommend it? I think Armstrong’s belief that we can learn to be individually – and collectively – better at caring for one another is a powerful, if only partially persuasive one. I found the first chapter that provides an overview of how Confusianism, Buddihism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism have understood and practiced ‘compassion’ a potent reminder (and a flashback to first year religious studies) of the similarities among these faith groups, the consistency in their fundamental belief in communal care. I did find that many of the later chapters – five or six pages in length – slipped into something of pat directives to be kinder to other people, to not assume you know everything. I would say that as a non-believer the book was both accessible and non-preachy. I don’t know. Read it if you find yourself frequently overcome with frustration at work: when you can’t stand another meeting, or your boss has just finished explaining the difference between a word document and a pdf for five minutes. You might find then that some of the calls to compassion are helpful, even healing. You may also find lobbing the book at the wall an equally restorative exercise. You be the judge.