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Compassion and the Real Meaning of the Golden Rule

“Compassion… asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.”

“Have compassion for everyone you meet,” Lucinda Williams sings, for “you do not know what wars are going on down there, where the spirit meets the bone.” This ode to what should be our baseline behavior to one another echoes like a great secular psalm in the cathedral of the human experience — a sorely needed one, and yet one which humanity has a long history of tuning out, to its own detriment.

Karen Armstrong joined a convent at the age of seventeen, but soon found herself both miserable and, per her own admission, a “failure” as a nun. Seven years later, she left and decided to become a secular scholar, cutting off all ties to religion and setting out to study English Literature in Oxford. But what she learned about instead — and what she dedicated the next four decades of her life to — was compassion. Although it might not seem this way — especially amid today’s gruesome distortions of spiritual traditions, which are hardly new — Armstrong was startled to find, through her secular back door, that compassion was the common core of all religions. She became a historian of religion, received the prestigious $100,000 TED Prize in 2008 for her work promoting interfaith dialogue, and founded the Charter for Compassion, a multilingual effort to transmute the world’s religions into a force of global harmony rather than discord, enlisting leading thinkers from a wide range of religious and moral traditions.

Karen Armstrong (Photograph: Paul Vicente)

Armstrong encapsulates a lifetime of studying and championing this height of the human spirit in the wonderfully wise, urgently necessary book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (public library). She writes:

One of the chief tasks of our time must surely be to build a global community in which all peoples can live together in mutual respect; yet religion, which should be making a major contribution, is seen as part of the problem. All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao. Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule, “Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you,” or in its positive form, “Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.” Further, they all insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group; you must have concern for everybody — even your enemies.

Illustration from ‘Fox’s Garden’ by Princesse Camcam, a tender wordless fable about compassion to those kicked away. Click image for more.

Armstrong counters the laziness of the commonly held opinion that religion is the cause of all major wars in history:

In fact, the causes of conflict are usually greed, envy, and ambition, but in an effort to sanitize them, these self-serving emotions have often been cloaked in religious rhetoric. There has been much flagrant abuse of religion in recent years. Terrorists have used their faith to justify atrocities that violate its most sacred values. In the Roman Catholic Church, popes and bishops have ignored the suffering of countless women and children by turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse committed by their priests. Some religious leaders seem to behave like secular politicians, singing the praises of their own denomination and decrying their rivals with scant regard for charity… Disputes that were secular in origin, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, have been allowed to fester and become “holy,” and once they have been sacralized, positions tend to harden and become resistant to pragmatic solutions. And yet at the same time we are bound together more closely than ever before through the electronic media… In a world in which small groups will increasingly have powers of destruction hitherto confined to the nation-state, it has become imperative to apply the Golden Rule globally, ensuring that all peoples are treated as we would wish to be treated ourselves. If our religious and ethical traditions fail to address this challenge, they will fail the test of our time.

Armstrong quotes the final version of the Charter for Compassion, which was launched in November of 2009 and came to embody this spirit by offering an antidote to the voices of extremism, intolerance, and hatred:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre 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.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others — even our enemies — is a denial of our common humanity.


We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from ‘The Lion and the Bird,’ one of the best children’s books of 2014. Click image to see more.

But compassion can’t be enacted without first grasping its essence in a way that reclaims it from the realm of abstraction and makes it an actionable quality. Armstrong offers a necessary definition:

Compassion is aptly summed up in the Golden Rule, which asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else. Compassion can be defined, therefore, as an attitude of principled, consistent altruism.

In fact, the first person to formulate the Golden Rule predated the founding figures of Christianity and Islam by five centuries and a millennium, respectively — when asked which of his teachings his disciples should practice most tenaciously, “all day and every day,” the Chinese sage Confucius (551–479 BCE) pointed to the concept of shu, commonly translated as “consideration,” which he explained as striving “never to do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” Armstrong clarifies:

A better translation of shu is “likening to oneself”; people should not put themselves in a special, privileged category but relate their own experience to that of others “all day and every day.” Confucius called this ideal ren, a word that originally meant “noble” or “worthy” but that by his time simply meant “human.” Some scholars have argued that its root meaning was “softness,” “pliability.” But Confucius always refused to define ren, because, he said, it did not adequately correspond to any of the familiar categories of his day. It could be understood only by somebody who practiced it perfectly and was inconceivable to anybody who did not. A person who behaved with ren “all day and every day” would become a junzi, a “mature human being.”

Compassion, thus, is a matter of orienting oneself toward the rest of humanity, implicitly requiring a transcendence of self-interest and egotism. Centuries later, the three major monotheistic religions would arrive at strikingly similar conclusions — but the compassionate disposition is indiscriminately ennobling, whether its manifestations come from the secular world or the religious, and something we have historically admired in human beings from all backgrounds. Armstrong illustrates this with some familiar examples:

When we encounter a truly compassionate man or woman we feel enhanced. The names of the Quaker prison reformer Elizabeth Fry (1780–1845), Florence Nightingale (1820–1910), the hospital reformer, and Dorothy Day (1897–1980), founder of the Catholic Worker movement, have all become bywords for heroic philanthropy. Despite the fact that they were women in an aggressively male society, all three succeeded in making the compassionate ideal a practical, effective, and enduring force in a world that was in danger of forgetting it. The immense public veneration of Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama shows that people are hungry for a more compassionate and principled form of leadership… But in many ways compassion is alien to our modern way of life. The capitalist economy is intensely competitive and individualistic, and goes out of its way to encourage us to put ourselves first.

Illustration by Marla Frazee from ‘The Farmer and the Clown,’ a warm wordless story about an unlikely friendship and how we ennoble each other with compassion. Click image to see more.

But Armstrong laments — and I wistfully agree — that compassion has slipped woefully low in our hierarchy of cultural priorities. Even those of us most resolutely resistant to succumbing to the epidemic of cynicism can’t help but notice the systematic eradication of compassion from even our small everyday gestures to one another and our most basic forms of public discourse. Recently, for instance, when a certain prominent young entrepreneur announced his resolution to read a book every two weeks in the new year, a headline cropped up on the internet instantly denouncing his aspiration as a “shameless act of propaganda.” How did cynicism gobble us up so completely as to automatically dismiss even the possibility of earnestness? What failure of compassion has led us this far astray from even holding up a mirror to one another’s highest selves and not our basest, or even giving each other the benefit of the doubt?

And yet I continue to side with E.B. White’s beautiful case for keeping faith in the human spirit, for “as long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate.” This is what renders the entirety of Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, in which she goes on to outline how to cultivate this vital and vitalizing virtue in our everyday secular lives, so very emboldening and so very necessary.

Complement it with David DeSteno on the psychology of compassion, artist Ann Truitt on what it means to extend it to others, and Mark Twain on how he learned about it from his mother.

Published January 8, 2015




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