TWELVE STEPS TO A COM­PAS­SION­ATE LIFE By Karen Arm­strong Knopf. 222 pp. $22.95

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - —Lisa Bonos bonosl@wash­

You might think you’re a com­pas­sion­ate per­son: Maybe you give time and money to char­ity, rou­tinely make sac­ri­fices for the well­be­ing of your fam­ily and friends, and try to avoid un­fairly judg­ing oth­ers. But when asked to send kind thoughts and fol­low up with acts of friend­ship, com­pas­sion, joy and fair-mind­ed­ness to your en­e­mies, you may re­al­ize that you’re as self-cen­tered as any­one else in our me-first mod­ern world.

In “Twelve Steps to a Com­pas­sion­ate Life,” Karen Arm­strong, a prom­i­nent and pro­lific re­li­gious his­to­rian, of­fers a pre­scrip­tion for the world’s ad­dic­tion to ego­tism that might sound coun­ter­in­tu­itive. Af­ter all, her key to mak­ing the world more car­ing and more whole is found in re­li­gion, which also hap­pens to con­trib­ute to many of the world’s di­vi­sions.

She uses the uni­ver­sal­ity of the Golden Rule — which she fol­lows on its course from Con­fu­cius and the Bud­dha to mod­ern­day monothe­ism — to cre­ate a thought­pro­vok­ing pro­gram for spread­ing com­pas­sion that goes well be­yond this book: Her Char­ter for Com­pas­sion has more than 60,000 sig­na­to­ries world­wide. Sim­ply put, Arm­strong’s 12 steps aim to “re­train our re­sponses and form mental habits that are kinder, gen­tler and less fear­ful of oth­ers.” We are to achieve this by do­ing unto oth­ers as we would have them do unto us. And by lov­ing our neigh­bors as our­selves.

Ev­ery­one knows this two-part rule, but how of­ten do we prac­tice it? Arm­strong presents the Golden Rule as not just an ideal but as a 21st-cen­tury ne­ces­sity. The global econ­omy, she points out, is so in­ter­con­nected that ev­ery­one is a neigh­bor. Na­tional bound­aries are es­sen­tially mean­ing­less, as war af­fects fi­nan­cial mar­kets around the world and one group’s suf­fer­ing is likely to pro­voke vengeance and more harm. “So if we harm our neigh­bors,” Arm­strong writes, “we also in­flict dam­age on our­selves.”

Arm­strong ex­horts read­ers to “make space for the other” in their minds and speech, call­ing for So­cratic com­pas­sion­ate dis­course that leads to in­sight rather than speech de­voted to per­suad­ing oth­ers to agree with us. “We do not en­gage in many di­a­logues like this to­day,” she writes, adding that “it is not enough for us to seek the truth; we also want to de­feat and even hu­mil­i­ate our op­po­nents.” Com­ing to an ar­gu­ment ready to lose or change our con­vic­tions is a tough mind-set to adopt in this hy­per­par­ti­san world, but Arm­strong stresses that re­al­iz­ing how lit­tle we know can be the gate­way to ab­sorb­ing new knowl­edge and over­turn­ing de­struc­tive stereo­types.

Lean­ing on the wis­dom of dis­parate faiths and be­lief sys­tems, Arm­strong lays out a plu­ral­is­tic and, ul­ti­mately, sec­u­lar way to spread com­pas­sion that’s easy to be­lieve in. The chal­lenge lies in fol­low­ing it.

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