Compassion requires you to dethrone yourself from the centre of your world and put others in your place.
This was the point that eminent historian and author Karen Armstrong focused on and kept coming back to in her lecture titled ‘The need for compassion in a fractured world’ in the Aga Khan University auditorium on Monday afternoon.
Ms Armstrong set the tone of her talk by asking the question as to what is meant by compassion. Answering the query she said people often confused compassion with pity or mercy. The word had Latin roots which meant to “to feel with the others” or “to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes”.
Ms Armstrong said compassion was about equality. It required you to look into your heart, discover pain and see if you could in any circumstance inflict that pain upon someone else. In every single religious tradition, she argued, it had been expressed as the golden rule. Confucius enunciated it as “do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire”.
Referring to the title of the lecture, Ms Armstrong talked about how compassion worked in a fragmented world. She said she was a Brit and was struggling at home with Brexit. Also, we had Donald Trump (in global politics) and had renewed tension with India (and Pakistan). “The world would not be a better place unless we learned to treat all peoples as we wished to be treated ourselves.”
Giving a historical perspective of the volatile atmosphere, Ms Armstrong reasoned it was nothing new. In the past there had been huge times of fear and distress. Confucius, for example, was writing in a terrible era in Chinese history where states were at war with each other. There was strife and violence during the periods of great religious leaders but they spoke of doing good to others. We needed to make that golden rule speak in our time as well.
Ms Armstrong said as a young girl she never associated religion with compassion. Her early books were very critical of religion. She had a series of career disasters. During one such phase she went to a remote part of England to write a book called A History of God. She was entirely alone with the text. Then the text began to speak to her in a different way because “theology is poetry”. The word compassion came to her notice. Whatever (religious) tradition she had read about, she discovered that compassion was at the core of each one of them. It was the hallmark of faith, but we didn’t seem to hear about it often.
This led her to tell the audience how she came up with the idea of constructing the Charter of Compassion, helped by 23 religious leaders. Compassion, she remarked, “requires you to dethrone yourself from the centre of your world and put yourself in the position of the other.”
Ms Armstrong said it was a revelation to her that it was not religious but people from business communities and from the profession of medicine that had had been able to translate the charter. She claimed, of all the countries where the charter was being implemented, Pakistan was “way at the top”. She also mentioned a new project called ‘Bridges’ which was to take off from Tuesday in which spaces under Karachi’s bridges would be opened for street children and university students would teach them (Urdu, English, mathematics etc). So it would not just be a physical bridge but a bridge under which the poor and the rich would come together.
Ms Armstrong said she’s these days working on a book which was about the history of scripture in all religions. While writing it she learned that the (above-mentioned) golden rule was essential to all of them. And despite that, we had not managed to create an equal society. It’s certainly true for UK and US societies, she pointed out. The other thing that she learned from the scriptures was that it had to be implemented practically in public life. In that context she gave the example of an incident that last year took 72 lives in London but no one heard anything from the Archbishop of Canterbury. According to the scriptures, you achieved enlightenment by helping others, she said.
After the lecture, replying to a question, Ms Armstrong opined she saw justice and compassion as synonyms.
Originally published in Dawn, September 25th, 2018