This is an important book. But it is a book which cannot simply be read to do any good. Caveat: I simply read it.
Before I go on, let me recommend that you get the book from a library and read it. If you decide that you want to actually work at being more compassionate, if you want to work at the twelve steps in your own life, then go ahead and purchase yourself a copy. When Sara gets around to reading it we will probably purchase a copy.
The book itself is a quick read; but it is meant to be read slowly. Each chapter (step) is supposed to be mastered before moving on to the next. That is kind of difficult when you have a copy from the library for four weeks, like I did.
As Armstrong writes in the conclusion (“A Last Word”):
“It is rather a reminder that the attempt to become a compassionate human being is a lifelong project. It is not achieved in an hour or a day—or even in twelve steps. It is a struggle that will last until our dying hour. … You will have to work at all twelve steps continuously for the rest of your life—learning more about compassion, surveying your world anew, struggling with self-hatred and discouragement. Never mind loving your enemies—sometimes loving your nearest and dearest selflessly and patiently will be a struggle!” (191-2)
The author makes a good case for why we need more compassion in the world today, even though that claim should be self-evident. This project arose from the TED Prize that the author won in 2008. Besides the cash prize, recipients get a wish. Hers was for a Charter for Compassion, “written by leading thinkers from a variety of major faiths [which] would restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life” (6).
The six major faith traditions of Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are used throughout the book to show how we may become more compassionate.
Armstrong shows how each of these major faiths were founded on compassion, how they each, among others, have all formulated some version of the Golden Rule. But the beauty of the book is in how religion does not matter. What matters are the ideas which underlie these faiths. This book is written and intended for the non-believer just as much as for the believer of any specific doctrine, whether of these six faith communities or any other.
As an agnostic (epistemically) and an atheist (commitment-wise), I quite enjoyed this book and Armstrong’s approach. In fact, ancient Greek mythos and culture is used as much as any of the main faiths are. Shakespeare, Joseph Campbell, assorted 20th century philosophers, and others are also made good use of.
This book would make a great selection for a committed book club, as it would for a campus reads program, or a first-year experience. In fact, a lengthy (one- or, preferably, two-semester, or a year or two for a book club), committed engagement with this book and the texts and doctrines and world views which surround it would be ideal. Many different approaches can and should be taken with the ideas presented.
One of her suggestions is to form a book group to go through the twelve steps with, and suggestions are made throughout of possible issues for discussion and further reading in such a group.
In the end, it is up to ourselves as individuals to become more compassionate. But if Armstrong, and all of the major faiths and ethical systems are correct, by treating others with compassion we will change them too.
As Armstrong writes at the end of the preface (“Wish for a Better World”):
“I am in agreement with His Holiness the Dalai Lama that “whether a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be a good human being.” At their best, all religious, philosophical, and ethical traditions are based on the principle of compassion” (23-4).
- Preface: Wish for a Better World
- The First Step: Learn About Compassion
- The Second Step: Look at your Own World
- The Third Step: Compassion for Yourself
- The Fourth Step: Empathy
- The Fifth Step: Mindfulness
- The Sixth Step: Action
- The Seventh Step: How Little We Know
- The Eighth Step: How Should We Speak to One Another?
- The Ninth Step: Concern for Everybody
- The Tenth Step: Knowledge
- The Eleventh Step: Recognition
- The Twelfth Step: Love Your Enemies
- A Last Word
As a good companion book to this Armstrong book I would recommend Paul Woodruff’s Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue
I read Woodruff’s book in January 2009 and my, sadly, short comments can be seen in item #10 at my Books Read in 2009 post.
[This post was written for my dear friend, Jen!! I was thinking that I wasn’t going to say much about this book as I read it but I knew she was looking forward to my review. After discussing the issue of how it might work as a campus reads or first-year experience book with my lovely wife I realized that I might as well write those things down, too.]