First aired on Q (01/17/11)
When Karen Armstrong won the TED Prize in 2008, a $100,000 award handed out annually by the organization, which holds global conferences based on its mantra of "ideas worth spreading," she was asked to make a wish she thought could change the world. For Armstrong, the author of more than 20 books on religion, including The Case for God, the answer was easy. She wished for more compassion in the world. And she even had a concrete plan in mind for how to achieve it.
Since making that TED wish, Armstrong has been working on the Charter for Compassion, a shared moral document that has been signed by thousands of leaders from all religious faiths and traditions.
Her latest book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, is a continuation of that project. It's an attempt to bridge what Armstrong says is the greatest barrier to building an atmosphere of compassion — most people don't know what it is.
"Compassion doesn't, of course, mean feeling sorry for people, or pity, which is how the word has become emasculated in a way," Armstrong told Jian Ghomeshi in a recent interview on Q. "It means to put yourself consistently in somebody else's shoes [...] That golden rule which has been formulated in every single one of the major religions."
Unfortunately, that idea of a golden rule has been pushed aside in our modernity, which Armstrong describes as being spectacularly violent and intolerant. Most people, she says, don't want to be compassionate, whether they're religious or secular. What they want is to be right.
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life is intended to be a practical guide, modelled after the twelve step programs of drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. According to Armstrong, compassion is something that can be taught and that we must learn in order to create a viable world in the 21st century.
"I try and I fail every day [to live compassionately]. We all do," Armstrong later said. "Our work is just beginning. It will last a lifetime."