Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong

A process for developing personal compassion to engage in compassionate community for a more compassionate world

Welcome to Compassionate Sunday. We’re working through Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong, one step per month.

If you’d like to share a post about what you learned about compassion (The First Step), what you’re seeing in your world (The Second Step), self-compassion (The Third Step), empathy (The Fourth Step), mindfulness (The Fifth Step), action (The Sixth Step), or how little we know (The Seventh Step) use the link list below. Or join the discussion in the comments or on Facebook.

I’ve read the chapter on the Seventh Step, How Little We Know, twice and, both times, it made me grumpy. If I don’t know something then I want to learn it (First Step). If I don’t know something, I find it hard to act (Sixth Step).

Clearly, this chapter is about something else but I had a hard time getting past my crankiness to find it. Which is why I wrote about The American Citizens Summit for the first week of August and reviewed the book This is an Uprising for the second week. It’s the third week of August, it’s really about time that I reflect on the Seventh Step directly.

Listening to an old On Being podcast finally helped. In June, Krista Tippett interviewed Pauline Boss in a show called “The Myth of Closure.” Boss, a professor and author, studied ambiguous loss — the situations where a loved one is physically present but psychologically lost (like the families of dementia patients) or psychologically present but physically lost (like the families of soldiers who are Missing in Action or like most of the 9/11 families). Our society provides very little structure for this experience — in part because we aren’t as good as we think we are about more conventional losses.

In Western culture (I’d add “white” to that), we like problems we can solve, problems that we can work through in a straight-forward and linear fashion, problems where we can reach a closure. We got ourselves attached to the Kubler-Ross stages of grieving, which weren’t, in fact, that at all. They were stages of dying — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Dying does, indeed, have an end. Grieving, even when it’s more conventional than the ambiguous losses that Pauline Boss studied, doesn’t end.

My father died in 2001 at age 63. My mother died in 2005 at age 68. I can’t truthfully claim that I think about them every day (I didn’t think about them every day when they were living — it wasn’t the sort of relationship we had). But, I can’t truthfully claim full acceptance of their deaths, either. Every time I see or hear an obituary of someone who made it through their 60s, I wonder why I couldn’t have had my parents a few years longer.

The Seventh Step, I think, is about mystery and paradox. Pauline Boss says that the people who function after an ambiguous loss find a way to live with paradox, with opposing thoughts ringing true at the same time: “he’s probably dead and won’t come back, but maybe he will.”

In the short term, compassion can be fueled with learning and action. In the long term, we’re going to run into trouble if compassion can’t be sustained when we encounter mystery and paradox. I need to accept that some of my beliefs about the world will never be satisfactorily proved by science. Philosophers from ancient times to contemporary trust mystery more than certainty. I can’t assume that I understand anything about another person unless I ask, as illustrated by this blog post: How to listen when you disagree: a lesson from the Republican National Convention by Benjamin Mathes at Urban Confessional.

How do you live and function and express compassion among paradoxes and alongside mystery?


Not Knowing #SeventhStep #CompassionateSunday — 3 Comments

  1. Mystery and paradox are an important component in every truth I’ve found in my life. They are very confusing, though. I wish I knew the answer to the question you posed. Perhaps it’s because the answer is both easy and hard. Facing it and not facing it.

    (Not sure if anything I wrote makes sense….apologies if it does not….)

    Here’s my Sunday Salon. Consider yourself happiness-tagged. Or not. As you so wish.

  2. My parents died in 2005 and 2011 … and I thought I was the only one who did think of her parents every day. But you are so right – that was not our relationship in life, so why would be so in death? Thank you for allowing me to let go of the guilt…

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