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), how little we know (The Seventh Step), or how to speak to one another (The Eighth Step) use the link list below. Or join the discussion in the comments or on Facebook.

The last paragraph of The Eighth Step chapter, about how we should speak to one another, is a series of questions. Let’s see what I can come up with as a first draft of answers.

When you argue, do you get carried away by your own cleverness and deliberately inflict pain on your opponent? Do you get personal? Will the points you make further the cause of understanding or are they exacerbating an already inflammatory situation? (p. 141)

I’m getting somewhat better on this front, partly as a result of more than six months of working through the Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. I’m much less likely to deliberately inflict pain with my words, but I do still get caught up in my own cleverness. Sometimes, that works for me. Cleverness without pain sometimes startles people into a different place in dialogue. Unfortunately, I’m not that clever, in the moment, most of the time. Cleverness usually arrives an hour late.

For the most part, I’ve quit weighing in where an inflammatory situation will only be exacerbated. But, as I mentioned last week, that often leads to silence. We’re not going to promote further understanding if the best we can do is silence. I worry almost as much about the dialogues that never happen across divides as I do about the damaging rhetoric that we’re using.

Are you really listening to your opponent? (p. 141)

Be Curious Not Judgmental, Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman is usually attributed for this quote, but there’s no record that he said it.

This is where I struggle. There are positions that are so obviously wrong that I can barely stand to hear them. It’s helped to go back to The Seventh Step, how little we know. If I can get myself to the state of curious rather than judgmental, I’m much more likely to listen.

Why did this person reach that position? What in that position is reasonable, at least if I’m coming from that person’s perspective? What in that position can I use to deepen my position?

Here’s one example of how that works from two different directions. As a self-confessed bleeding heart liberal, I can get very caught up in policies that help people.

A good reminder from my more conservative friends is that self-efficacy is one of the most rewarding aspects of my life. I don’t want to help so much that I take that away from the people I’m purporting to help.

A good reminder from my more radical friends is that charity often isn’t what’s required — it’s solidarity. I don’t want to cast myself in the role of white savior when I can be a white accomplice.

The last line of this chapter is:

And before you embark on an argument or a debate, ask yourself honestly if you are ready to change your mind. (p. 142)

I’m not sure where to go if the answer is “No. I’m not wiling to change my mind.” That sends me back to silence. Maybe I don’t need to set the bar quite so high. Maybe I just need a willingness to really listen and to change my mind on the edges. I don’t have to change my core values, but I can change what I think about other people’s core values and I can let that new knowledge impact my approach to the issue.

How do you choose when to be silent and when to speak? When is silence an act of compassion and when is it an act of cowardice? When is speaking an act of self-aggrandizement and when is it an act of compassion?


Questions about Dialogue #CompassionateSunday — 2 Comments

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever intentionally hurt someone’s feelings in a debate (I remember doing it once during an argument and I felt so bad I just stopped arguing right there and then – that was with my sister). I do, however, say things that unintentionally hurt my boyfriend’s feelings. I need to practice being more aware of what I’m saying.

    As for when to embark on a debate, I’m generally not going to change my mind, though I have done so on occasion. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a nice debate/discussion where noone is going to change minds, because it still gives a chance to see the other person’s point of view. But I can see why Armstrong asks that question.

    I did get into a pointless argument with a co-worker once about Muslims. She was saying they were mean and violent. I politely argued with her until her insistence became frustrating and then got up and walked out. I feel like if I’d not engaged in the first place, I wouldn’t have had to get frustrated.

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