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5.0 out of 5 stars Living the Golden Rule, August 4, 2011
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This review is from: Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (Borzoi Books) (Hardcover)
At a young age, we likely heard from our parents the importance of the Golden Rule--a maxim that we should treat others the way that we would want to be treated. In our polarized world today, however, we've failed to understand and to apply the Golden Rule, says Karen Armstrong in her Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. A reader of Armstrong's works for the past ten years, this latest installment differs in that it provides us with practical steps that anyone can embrace toward becoming a person of compassion.

Known primarily as a scholar of religious history, Armstrong incorporates evolutionary science in her first step Learn About Compassion to support her position that compassion is wired in the brain as much as the 4 Fs--Food, Fight, Flight, and reproduction--are. Armstrong builds upon "the two brains" concept throughout the remaining eleven steps as a way to gauge our own progress toward a compassionate life but also to ground our thoughts, behaviors, and failings in scientific fact. Bringing evolution into the religious arena may be too much for some to swallow; however, Armstrong is fair-minded when recommending that we review our own faith tradition as we progress through the twelve steps.

The other eleven steps--Look at Your Own World, Compassion for Yourself, Empathy, Mindfulness, Action, How Little We Know, How Should We Speak to One Another?, Concern for Everybody, Knowledge, Recognition, and Love Your Enemies--are organized from examining ourselves, to learning how to be compassionate with people around us, to enacting compassion in the world. There is a predictable pattern to each chapter. Armstrong provides an anecdote that demonstrates the step, follows it up with examples of how spiritual leaders of the past have approached it, and then ends with related questions and advice for us to accomplish the step.

A skeptic may look upon these as nothing more than failed idealistic virtues, but, as Armstrong points out, becoming compassionate takes rigorous work up until our final moments of life. In other words, as the twelve steps for an alcoholic can be demanding, so too are these twelve. If we are truly committed to living a compassionate life, then we must be willing to dedicate ourselves the same way the sages of the Axial did during violent and destructive times.

I will not do an exhaustive review of each step because that would take too long and would be a mistake on my part for attempting to impose myself on your interior space. However, the eighth step How Should We Speak to One Another? and the tenth step Knowledge speak volumes about the polarization we now encounter in the world around us. One unfortunate trend today is the attack and counterattack model, where, for example, "experts" appear on popular cable channels not only to present their position but to annihilate and humiliate the opposing viewpoint.

Instead of resolving anything, all that is stirred is our emotions, and, as a result, we watch the next episode hoping to hear how the expert from "our side" will belittle the opponent. If we truly want ourselves, our country, and our world to live according to the Golden Rule, this type of rancorous speech must end. What should that mean for us? According to Armstrong, a compassionate person must admit that we do not know everything (in fact, very little) and that we must be willing to listen to our enemies with an open mind and heart. Unfortunately, we are so used to fighting our opponents and then fleeing to a channel that supports our views that we never cross over into a realm of possibility.

A little over two hundred pages, Twelve Steps is probably one of Armstrong's shortest books, but because it is, I will return to it periodically as I work through each step. If you read this book in a day or two and then shelve it, then likely you've missed the point. This is a book calling all of us to action, and if you believe in a more compassionate world, then this book is a great resource for you to begin that important journey.
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