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Interview: “Compassion is essential to our survival”

Is compassion an antidote to our global problems? According to Karen Armstrong, it is our only chance of averting global catastrophe. At the end of November, the British historian of religion will present the annual Compassion Prize in Amsterdam: “I am hoping that there will be some international initiatives,” she says.

Jolanda Breur 28 november 2018


In early November, Karen Armstrong and her team celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Charter for Compassion in Canada, during the Parliament of World Religions in Toronto. For a decade, they have been attempting to propagate the practice of compassion worldwide. When the 74-year-old former nun won the prestigious TED Prize in 2008, she decided to use the prize money of $100,000 to compose and disseminate the Charter for Compassion, which was written by leading thinkers and activists representing seven of the major world religions. It summoned men and women to make the compassionate ideal central to public and private life.

Many people had already read her books, which have been published in over forty different languages. Next year, she will publish a book about scripture in all the great faith traditions, which argues that Indian, Chinese, Jewish, Christian and Islamic sacred texts all prioritise the virtue of compassion. “Religion,’ she says, ‘is not simply an intimate, private matter between you and your god; it must always lead to practical compassionate action.”

Is compassion an experience or a practice?

“Compassion is not simply a feeling; you have to practise it. The word is derived from a Latin root – com passio – which means “to feel or endure with another.” It requires empathy. The Golden Rule, which has been developed in all major faith traditions as the prime religious duty, insists upon this: “Do not treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself.” In the sixth century BCE, the Chinese teacher Confucius, one of the first people to pronounce the Golden Rule, expressed it this way; “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.” Furthermore, he insisted that this was not just an occasional practice to be observed when you felt like it; you must behave in this empathic way, he said, “All day and every day.” By putting yourself constantly in the position of others, you learn to transcend the ego. If you do not like people to speak unkindly to you, you must not speak unkindly to anybody at all.”

Is compassion easier for some people than others?

“Compassion is innate in all of us; it is essential to our humanity. It ensures that a mother gets up every night for her crying child, no matter how exhausted she feels. Compassion was, therefore, essential to the survival of our species. But human beings are also naturally self-centred. We like to put ourselves first – and this egotistic impulse inspires unkindness, cruelty and injustice. So we have to cultivate what one Chinese sage called ‘the seed of compassion’ so that it counters our natural selfishness – just as we have to exercise our bodies in the gym to stay in shape.”

But this will not mean that everybody will become equally compassionate?

“It is precisely because we are all selfish and competitive that we struggle to become truly compassionate. You will succeed only if you persevere in the exercise of compassion and the Golden rule – “all day and every day”, carefully and continuously. We become compassionate only by cultivating it continuously and energetically.”

Why should we develop compassion?

“Because I think it is essential to world peace. Compassion is not just a nice idea; it is an urgent global imperative. Unless we practice the Golden Rule politically, treating all peoples – whether we like them or not – as we would wish to be treated ourselves, the world will simply not be a viable place and, thanks to the weapons of mass-destruction, our species is unlikely to survive. If the imperial powers – such as Britain, France and the Netherlands – had observed the Golden Rule in their colonies during the 19th and early 20th centuries, we would not be experiencing so many problems today. The consequences of our colonial behaviour are to some degree responsible for some of the terrorist atrocities we are experiencing.”

How can we feel compassion for terrorists who clearly do not practise the Golden Rule?

“Obviously, we cannot and must not condone their actions, which are quite simply cruel and criminal. But we should perhaps ask ourselves – and this is not easy – how we would behave if we ourselves were living under cruel and unjust regimes that have for decades been supported by Western governments. Certainly, Britain has aggressively supported regimes in Muslim-majority countries that have terrorised the population and allowed them no freedom of expression – conditions that British people do not desire for themselves and would not tolerate at home.”

You have said that compassion should make us uncomfortable?

“About 400 cities worldwide have adopted the Charter and have undertaken to implement it practically, realistically and creatively in urban life. Somebody once asked me: “What should a compassionate city be like?” I replied that a compassionate city should be an uncomfortable city. It should not simply be full of peace, joy and love. The Prophet Muhammad once said: “Not one of you can be a believer if he can sleep when he knows that someone is hungry.” We know all too well that people are suffering all over the world – they are starving, are oppressed, and treated cruelly. We know about the plight of the Rohinga Muslims in Burma, for example. That should make us uncomfortable and this discomfort is the seed of compassion.”

Many Dutch people already have their hands full, coping with a rapidly changing and insecure society. There is stress, burn-out, and depression. How can we make room in our lives for compassion for other people?

“We also have this in Britain – at least you don’t have to cope with the disaster of Brexit! But stress is part of the human condition. The Rohinga Muslims or the people of Syria and Yemen would love to have our problems! We must get this anxiety into perspective and not indulge in self-pity and we can do that by contemplating the pain and predicament of others. Our most successful and dynamic Compassionate City is Karachi in Pakistan, which is coping with many of the problems that are tearing our world apart. It is astonishing what they are doing there. The Compassionate team has devised an educational system that is based on compassion which has been sponsored by the local government; some 21,000 students are going through this process; they are also doing extraordinary work for the homeless and destitute in the city and, once they have piloted these schemes will transmit them to other cities in Pakistan. No one says that compassion is easy.”


IMG-4720 Karachi (Wikimedia Commons)


Should we not start small-scale in our own environment? Do you have everyday examples of the cultivation of compassion?

“Nobody expects you to acquire the compassion of a Buddha immediately! But if we practice compassion assiduously, “all day and every day” you gradually become better at it. When you learn to read, you have start with the alphabet. I wrote a book entitled Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life to enable people to develop compassion incrementally, step by step. It teaches you to monitor your behaviour day by day: Are you patient in the line in the supermarket? Are you a friendly and compassionate driver – or a selfish, angry one? When you spot yourself being unkind, ask yourself how you can improve.

But mid-way through this Twelve Step programme, you switch from yourself and your own world to the plight of others in the rest of the world. If you see upsetting images of human suffering in Syria during the evening news, for example, do not turn away or switch to another channel. Keep this image alive in your mind and allow it to disturb you. In this way, you will learn to feel with these suffering people. They may seem to live far away in a different world, but we are now more connected with one another than ever before. We are linked electronically on the World Wide Web; you and I can talk to one another right now, even though I am in Toronto and you are in Amsterdam. We all face the same environmental problems and our economies are intricately connected. As the flow of migrants to Europe and the United States has shown, what happens in distant parts of the world will impact upon all of us. The migrant problem will not go away; it is only just beginning. We must realise that, however uncomfortable this may be, we cannot live without one another.”

You are attending the Parliament of World Religions. Have you gained any new insights from this?

“Not really; I have spent my time giving lectures to give other people new insights! And I am giving so many interviews – like this one! – that I cannot attend many of the lectures and discussions. It is a big event; the atmosphere is very pleasant; but I do not think it is very useful. With the huge problems we face today, the Parliament should be more practically oriented and more outward-looking. A Parliament usually meets to implement policy and make decisions. What the religious leaders here should be doing is putting such issues as compassion and justice at the top of the agenda to combat such aggressive policies as those of President Trump and sending a strong message to the world. The Parliament of World Religion, however, has never done this.”

At the end of November, you will be handing out the Annual Compassion Awards in Amsterdam. Is it time that this city becomes a Compassionate City?

“That would be very good. Rotterdam and Leiden have already taken this step. But I do not think that a Compassionate City should simply focus on its own problems and wellbeing. European cities should be linked with cities in the United States, the Middle East and Asia. We should be forming a compassionate network to counter the increasing violence and sectarianism that have erupted recently – notably in the recent terrorist attack on the Synagogue in Pittsburgh.”

What have the Compassionate Cities already achieved?

“They are all dealing with many urban problems, such as racism, homelessness and sectarianism. When a mosque in Louisville was vandalised, for example, the Mayor appeared on TV to ask for volunteers to clean it up: a thousand people, of all ages, showed up. One of the most surprising successes is Las Vegas – a city that we normally associate with gambling and showbiz. But the compassionate team has dedicated a special place in the city centre that informs citizens about tragedies or atrocities in other parts of the world – in the USA, India or Burma. Whenever a disaster occurs – wherever it is – people put flowers and light candles there and citizens are informed about what has happened. This is exactly what should be done to increase our sense of global awareness and I hope that other Compassionate Cities will adopt this practice.

And I must speak about Karachi again, because it is much in my mind since I was there recently. There is massive poverty in the city and many of the street children camp under large viaducts, filled with rubble. The Compassion Team persuaded the City Council to clear the rubbish under one bridge and build a state-of-the-art shelter for the local people. They have built classrooms where university students teach children from the poor neighbourhoods writing, mathematics, Urdu and English. It is a huge facility and there will also be cricket and football training there – and anything else that the community wants. The Team calls this project “Bridges” – not just because it is located under a bridge, but chiefly because it links the privileged with the unprivileged sectors of society. The City Council and the Stakeholders will pilot this project and when it has been fully tested will build similar facilities under five other bridges in Karachi – and then offer this idea to Lahore and Islamabad.”

And what has failed?

“At first in some cities there was a tendency to prioritize self-compassion; groups were simply practising a form of group therapy instead of working practically for others. People were also not sufficiently ambitious and content with making their own vicinity compassionate, dealing with their own pain and neglecting the plight of the larger world.”

Doubtless you spoke to them severely?

“Yes, indeed. But we are now developing a larger and more practically oriented Board and hope to improve our financial resources so that we can adopt more ambitious projects.”

What kind of initiatives do you hope to find at the award ceremony at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam?

“I have no idea what they have been doing but am very excited about my visit. I hope for some international projects, of course. Perhaps the students there could develop email friendships with students in other parts of the world – in Pakistan, for example; in this way, networks of understanding and friendship can mitigate some of the hostility and blinkered prejudice that is tearing our world apart.”

What would you say to people who are sceptical about the possibility of a better world?

“Many people are sceptical about the viability of compassion and that is very natural. I do not expect the entire Vrije University, or the whole City of Amsterdam or indeed the entire world to be converted. Throughout history, as I have shown in some of my books, people have closed their eyes to the suffering of others and focused on their own wellbeing. But we cannot afford to give up. Look at the great heroes of the 20th century – Gandhi, Mandela and Martin Luther King. They could have said that their lives were too complicated and looked after their own interests. But they show what one person can achieve. They were not saints; they had flaws and failings like anybody else. The Chinese scriptures insist that anybody – even ‘the man in the street’ – who makes the necessary moral effort to develop a compassionate heart can become a sage and transform the world.”

See original source: Compassion is essential to our survival



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