Let’s Start with Compassion

by Vicki Garlock on September 11, 2014


Compassionate Hands by Enver Rahmanov (own work)

In case you haven’t heard, tomorrow is the first day of the 2014 Compassion Games!! The point of the Games is to help communities become kinder, gentler places to live. The Games, which begin on September 11 (the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington D.C.) and end on September 21 (the International Day of Peace) are an outgrowth of the Charter for Compassion. I attended a regional kick-off event last Sunday evening in Atlanta, and I thought I’d share a bit about how the Games work and how individuals and communities can get involved.

It all started with TED and Karen. “TED” refers to the now-famous TED talks. Originally the talks centered on Technology, Education, Design, and the intersection between them. Today, TED talks and conferences converge on one very open-ended theme: Ideas Worth Spreading. “Karen” refers to Karen Armstrong. A former nun, she rose to prominence following the release of her 1993 book, A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Today, she is widely recognized as a formidable religious scholar who writes about the history of religious traditions and how it impacts our world today. TED and Karen united in 2008 when Armstrong was awarded a $100,000 TED prize. The prize helps winners achieve their one great wish for the world. Karen Armstrong’s dream? To make our world a more compassionate place. With the help of cutting-edge thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions, Armstrong developed and launched Charter for Compassion in 2009.

The Charter began as a 312-word pledge that intentionally transcends both religious differences and national boundaries. The Golden Rule, found in one form or another, in all of the world’s sacred texts, serves as the foundation for the pledge. Armstrong’s hope is that people will begin to see the compassionate side of religion. However, the emphasis on the Golden Rule  — treat others as you wish to be treated yourself — also allows for the inclusion of atheists/secular humanists. The pledge, itself, has been translated into over 30 languages, and more than 109,000 people have made a signed commitment to uphold the charter in their personal lives and in their communities. World-renowned signers include Queen Noor of Jordan, musician Peter Gabriel, and the Dalai Lama, but everyone is free to sign the charter either as an individual or on behalf of an organization/institution.

Three additional programs have been introduced since the Charter for Compassion was launched. The first is the International Campaign for Compassionate Cities. This initiative gives municipalities a chance to publicly proclaim their commitment to compassion as a matter of policy. The web site includes sample resolutions that cities can adapt and use, stories about how other towns became officially listed as “compassionate cities,” and examples of various grassroots-level activities that compassionate cities sponsor. Neighborhoods, congregations, businesses, institutions, organizations, classrooms, schools, and individuals can all take part. And the more that take part, the better off the world will be.

A second outgrowth of the Charter for Compassion is Armstrong’s recent book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Armstrong agrees with the ancient traditions that compassion is part of human nature and that being empathetic towards “the other” helps us to transcend “the self.” However, she also recognizes that compassion tends to get pushed aside by modern life. Capitalism and individualism allow our rather ruthless “reptilian” brain to disregard our compassionate tendencies. As a result, we need to consciously work on finding that compassionate place deep within us. We need to think about compassion, talk about compassion, and practice compassion. We have the capacity; we just have to access it. The book starts by educating people about the history of compassion in various ancient texts. It then talks about empathy, mindfulness, dialogue, and action. It ends with one of the most difficult steps: loving our enemies. Obviously, anyone can read Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, but it also widely used by various book clubs where people can share their progress, frustrations, triumphs, and stumbling blocks.

The third major development stemming from the Charter for Compassion is the Compassion Games. The Games can be played by individuals or by groups, and there are two primary ways to play. You (or your group) can practice random acts of kindness, which is pretty simple. You just make a concerted effort, especially during the duration of the Games (Sept. 11-Sept. 21) to offer feel-good deeds to the world. If you’re not sure what “counts” as a random act of kindness, use a search engine to find a range of suggestions. It can be something easy, like offering a smile to a stranger, or something more complex, like adopting a pet. Both the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation and Buzzfeed have great idea lists to get you started.

Alternatively, you (or your group) can sign up to be a “secret agent” of compassion. Each day, you are sent a secret mission via e-mail. These missions are open-ended, which means you get to decide how, exactly, you will complete your assigned task. For example, your mission might be to “generate smiles.” That might involve sharing a joke at work, playing a game with children, or taking the time to watch a funny movie. Another mission might be to “appreciate the inter-connectedness of nature.” That might involve going on a hike, researching endangered species, or cooking a meal from locally-grown foods. The Compassion Games give you the inspiration; you figure out the details.

I was particularly excited about the Compassion Games kick-off I attended a few days ago in Atlanta because it was an interfaith event. It was sponsored by seven different organizations that work together to break down barriers between faith traditions, and it was great fun to meet the wonderfully open-hearted people who worked diligently to plan this event. The list of organizations included the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta, Interfaith Community Initiatives, Hands On Atlanta, and the Neshama Interfaith Center. The kick-off included songs, a brief introduction on how to play the Compassion Games, and a guest speaker from the Atlanta Board of Education. They also included their own Atlanta twist on the Games. This year, they are encouraging everyone in the Atlanta metro area to drive with compassion, and they offered several examples of what “compassionate driving” might look like. My favorite piece of the program was when several members of Atlanta’s International Community recited the Golden Rule in their native languages.

Karen Armstrong holds a special place in my life. I read her book, A History of God, at the age of 30. I was a graduate student in Neuroscience and Cognitive Development at the time. I have no idea why I was reading that book instead of research articles in my fields of expertise, but the book changed my life. Initially, it allowed me to start coming to terms with my very Christian upbringing. Eventually, it prompted me to attend a UCC church in Birmingham, AL. And ultimately, it resulted in my commitment to interfaith education for kids. But Karen Armstrong is correct. A faith-full life does not begin by understanding the history of God. It begins by practicing compassion. So jump on the bandwagon. Share random acts of kindness. Pay it forward. Be a “secret agent.” Or just make a special effort to embrace “the other.” You’ve got 10-days of Compassion Games to get you started. After that, maybe it will be a habit that you just can’t quit.

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