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Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

The Bodley Head, Random House,

Reviewed by Karyl Davison.

AT their best, all religious, philosophical and ethical traditions are based on the principle of compassion.

And few would argue that we don’t need more compassion in our world today.

Karen Armstrong, former Roman Catholic nun and author of the best selling The Case for God, draws on a wide range of material from the world’s major religions and early philosophers to contemporary science to make her case for a world where empathy and altruism are at the heart of our lives, both as individuals and as a society.

Armstrong argues that although humans at their most basic level are hardwired to ruthless selfishness, we have evolved to the extent that we are able to stand back from this instinctive and primitive response to be compassionate.

Armstrong begins with the Golden Rule in both its negative formulation: "Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you"; and in its positive formulation: "Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself."

As did the Jewish sage Hillel in a story Armstrong quotes when asked to explain succinctly the teachings of the Bible, Armstrong believes that "the rest is commentary" to be studied learned, and practiced.

Armstrong’s first step is to learn about compassion.

In the remaining chapters she develops a program starting with trying to understand and develop compassion towards oneself then gradually developing outward until one is able to see the value of even one’s enemies.

Armstrong includes good examples and exercises for each of the 12 steps making it a perfect choice for small groups and ecumenical or interfaith discussions.

Some will find her insistence on grounding altruistic behaviour in human biological impulses questionable. I think it would be fair to say that the jury is still out on this point.

However, the book does encourage people, both individually and corporately, to be more compassionate.

Let’s hope it’s enough.