How to live the compassionate life

Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Random House Australia, 240P $29.95

This volume is a departure for Karen Armstrong. Known for an impressive series of studies of world religions and the history of religious ideas and practices, Armstrong used the resources afforded by her 2008 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) award to launch a multi-stage project focusing on the theme of compassion.

The project culminates in a global collaboration that produced the Charter for Compassion, as well as this intriguing and most accessible volume.

The medium and the message cohere closely here. The charter was drafted online with the input of thousands of contributors and subsequent deliberation of leaders from many religious communities around the world.

Already translated into dozens of languages and endorsed by tens of thousands of people worldwide, the charter has gathered scores of partner organisations that commit themselves to a shared agenda of promoting the many faces of compassion.

This book is the most substantial resource in this unabashedly idealistic project, one that is hardly shy about wearing its very big heart on its sleeve. It explores what makes empathy possible and effective—within each one of us and in the wider world beyond.

A potential shortcoming of this volume is the sheer familiarity of the major claims and themes covered. Alleviating suffering, honouring the sanctity of all, refraining from egotism and violence—don’t we all already recognise these as key agenda items for a better future? Taken at face value alone, Armstrong’s suggestions for change might be dismissed as mere pablum.

Yet the patient reader is treated to a commendably methodical description of the human condition and an insightful program for how to improve life on all levels: the personal, interpersonal, societal and global. Even if the self-help style packaging of the book’s message may be a bit off-putting, nobody will turn from this work either expecting a quick fix or unprepared for bumps along the path of progress.

- Thomas Massaro SJ

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