Recently, I finished reading Karen Armstrong’s 12 Steps for a Compassionate Life. You can see my quick review of the book here, or I can just tell you what impressed me most about the book. It reminded me that universal compassion is really, really hard.
I like to think that I’m pretty good at compassion. I allow it to get me off the hook for the many ways in which I don’t adhere to the teachings of my faith: well, at least I practice compassion! I try not to gossip or to make snap judgments. I try to treat the strangers I meet with respect. I work in a library in the downtown area of a small city, where many of the patrons are impoverished, imprisoned or recently released, or otherwise down on their luck. I mentally pat myself on the back for providing them with respect and a safe place in a world that, I assume, all-too-often dismisses them.
But the poor and the down on their luck are just one subset of all the people to whom we’re asked to extend our compassion. And we just might negate the good that does if we’re too self-congratulatory about it. Jesus’ admonitions to the Pharisees who give alms so they can proclaim that they are giving alms comes to mind (Matthew 6:2-3).
Here’s the thing: it’s easier to give compassion to those who we feel do not threaten us. And that’s where the real work of compassion comes in — in dismantling the ego so that we cease to notice or to care about all the people who do threaten our carefully constructed and maintained sense of self.
Televangelists often preach about the difficulty of walking the “narrow way,” of living a righteous life, of staying sexually pure. All those things are difficult. But none of them are as hard as following Jesus’ ultimate commandment, to love God above all else and thus to love your neighbor as yourself.
It means I must extend that love and compassion to pastors who preach against homosexuality and funnel money and energy into passing legislation that harms our GLBTQ neighbors.
It means I must extend it to fellow Catholics who think my greatest error is my inability to conform myself fully to Church teaching.
It means I must extend it to my husband when the dishes haven’t been put away, and to my mother when she annoys me by denigrating her own self worth.
It means I must extend it to those who rape, murder, torture, and traffic other human beings.
It means I must extend it to myself when I fail to live up to my own ideals — which is every day of my life.
Everyone means everyone.
And while I always knew this on some level, Karen Armstrong’s book impressed it upon me in a way that was vivid enough to call into stark relief how very far I have to go. And I loved her for that acknowledgment. Now, as in every new day, it’s time to get to work.