First, some religious history: Karen Armstrong, a former nun and now a global compassion advocate, is fascinated with the question of why our world is full of “religious” people who do bad things. She argues that we’ve let the core tenet of “Do Unto Others” take a back seat to beliefs and dogma, and that’s dangerous. As Armstrong says, we’d much rather be right than compassionate. It turns out, religion as a system of beliefs that must adhered to is a very new idea. Armstrong claims the concept of adhering to set of beliefs has slowly eroded what religion was originally all about: practice, a way of life, a system to guide you. And at the core of most religions was the law of compassion, of treating all people, even strangers and enemies, the way you want to be treated.
Unfortunately, in many fundamental religions of the world today, it’s now belief that takes precedent over practice. And this sets the tone for our aggressive world. The great saints and mystics, the Jesus’s and Buddha’s and Mother Theresa’s, were much more interested in in how we acted toward others than what we believed.
So, we need to return to The Golden Rule, the real one. Sure, we all know this little nugget of Sunday School wisdom, but how many of us actively use it as a tool to judge our daily actions, our shopping choices, our investments? We think of compassion as a way to act towards our kids and our cat. But really, compassion should be at the heart of everything we do: our politics, our business models, our education system, and our response to enemies.
It sounds so simple: treat others as you wish to be treated. But many of us in America have a kind of Libertarian view of compassion. You leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone. Let’s all be nice and separate. You have the right to be poor and starve and live on the streets, and I have the right to my big car and my mansion. My compassion extends only as far as I’m comfortable with. But this neglects the global reality. Karen Armstrong argues that any religion that does not have a global perspective that is driven by compassion, not belief, is not a true faith.
At the core of The Good Samaritan story, the Bible’s best story about compassion, is the fact that the two main characters were political and religious enemies. The Good Samaritan saw himself in the suffering of his enemy, and so he took care of him. This is the compassion that will change the world: compassion towards enemies, toward those who mistreat us. That is how the world will be transformed.
A good way to start is to think about compassion as a daily practice. Buddhists believe that even the simple practice of wishing well to others (called the loving-kindness meditation) can have an impact, especially when we do it to our enemies. (Hint: it’s hard to think of someone as an enemy when you meditate on wishing them happiness). Compassion in the small interactions with strangers and local enemies like hostile co-workers, angry bosses, unfair neighbors, can be the small changes that lead to big shifts. The environmental movement is fond of making statements like, “if everyone changed just one light bulb in their house…”. We need to think like that in terms of compassion. If, once a day, every adult returned one act of aggression or unfairness or anger or inconsideration with concern and compassion, the world could be transformed.
Check out Karen Armstrong’s TEDtalk on compassion: Karen Armstrong on Compassion.
Andrew Andestic is the founder of “Tall Trees Grow Deep” where this piece was originally published.