Can Compassion Save the Planet?

Karen Armstrong, founder of the Charter for Compassion, on what we need to do to make a better world.

When British author Karen Armstrong won the TED prize in 2008, she used the money to convene a group of religious thinkers from a wide range of faiths to craft an updated version of the Golden Rule for the 21st century. What emerged was the Charter for Compassion, which calls on people around the world “to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.” That document inspired the creation of an international network, which now includes hundreds of organizations and more than 75 cities, ranging from Kara- chi to Belfast to Chippewa Falls.

Why the focus on compassion?

Every one of the major religions has formulated its own version of the Golden Rule. That’s the essence of faith and spirituality. And it seemed to me that it wasn’t just a nice idea; it was an urgent global imperative. Unless we learn to ensure that all people, no matter where they live, are treated the way we would like to be treated, the world isn’t going to be a viable place.

You’ve said that a compassionate city has to be an uncomfortable city. What do you mean?

It should be a city that’s uncomfort- able about pain and suffering in the world. The prophet Muhammad once said that no one can become a believer if he can sleep when he knows some- one is hungry. Especially in the West, we live lives of such privilege that

we often block out the awful things that are going on in the world. We shouldn’t be able to sleep, for example, when we see all these migrants literally dying to get into Europe.

The Golden Rule insists that we can- not confine our benevolence to just our own congenial group. “You must have concern for everybody,” says one Chinese sage. “Love the stranger, the foreigner,” says Leviticus. “Reach out to all tribes and nations,” says the Koran. That’s the message of the Charter.

That’s nice, but don’t we live in a me-first culture?

People always say to me, “We have to have compassion for ourselves.” That’s true. Unless you face up to the pain in your own life, you’re going to be hard on other people. But you can’t stop there. A few years ago, I wrote a book called Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, and I made self-compassion step three. There are nine other steps after that, ending with: Love your enemies.

We have to see ourselves as a collective. The alienation the West is causing is as dangerous for humanity as climate change.

How so?

One thing that makes me angry about Europe is that we think that we’re the only ones who are being attacked by terrorists. Two days before the most recent attacks in Paris, 44 people were blown up in Beirut by an ISIS suicide bomber, and the media in

the West barely mentioned it. This is noticed in the Muslim world. Earlier this year, I gave a lecture in Amman, Jordan, and a man who’d brokered the peace deal between Jordan and Israel came up to me and said, “The West has lost its humanity.” We care only for ourselves. This is not compassion.

Is there a city that inspires you?

Karachi, Pakistan. They’ve created a network of schools there that integrate compassion with the core subjects in the curriculum rather than teaching it as a separate entity. It was the children who asked the mayor to make Karachi a compassionate city. They said they wanted a community where there was more equality and they could go out in the streets and not be blown up by a suicide bomber.

What gives you hope?

I’m happy that so many of the people who’ve come forward to help are business people. I’m a writer who sits around writing about ancient history. What do I know about building organizations? But business people know how an idea becomes part of the structure of life, not just a lot of wild do-gooding that makes people burn out.

This is a broken world and one has to look at it squarely and with love. If we succumb to despair then all is lost. One must keep on, but always main- tain that high state of discomfort.