Formal Book Review

Micaela Butler

Professor Rigsby & Professor Atwell-Vasey

English  306Q, Writing for Nursing

May 1, 2015

Book Review for Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

Karen Armstrong’s (2010) Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life almost sounds like a bad self-help book that one would find at the bottom of a barrel in a garage sale. However, this book is anything but that. Instead, Armstrong (2010) has created an insightful guide on how to expand our capacity to embrace compassion in all aspects of life beyond the basic ability we are born with. The following review will emphasize Armstrong’s (2010) most significant steps that remain critical to her message. As an English major, which is where I find the bulk of my authority, I think that this book can prove to be a essential since a great deal of my major involves thinking critically. Many times, being an English major involves attempting to understand complex characters within novels despite the lack of development. This includes extending compassion to some characters that don’t seem worthy.

Armstrong (2010) is a well-known household name abroad, predominantly in the United Kingdom for her books regarding religion. More recently, she has gained notoriety with the increasing popularity of Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Talks, even winning $100,000 in order to create her Charter for Compassion, which is mentioned her novel Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Having written just over two dozen books, all of which dealing primarily with religion, Armstrong (2010) has gained a notable amount of authority to write about religion and how it intertwines with compassion.

Armstrong (2010) begins with “The First Step: Learn About Compassion” in which she introduces a very simple metaphor. Compassion is similar to driving, and in order to be successful, you have to get behind the wheel because reading the driver’s manual will only get you so far. She also introduces the Golden Rule: never do to others what you would not like them to do to you. To ground her argument, Armstrong (2010) uses different on narratives from history, specifically 900-200 BCE, a time in which spiritual elements were very vibrant in humanity. Armstrong (2010) uses examples from around the world in different societies to root her stance on how crucial compassion is across the board despite cultural differences. I found that this portion of the novel can prove to be helpful for anyone that has little to no knowledge regarding compassion and the surrounding history. Armstrong makes the novel accessible by not assuming readers know this information, providing a comprehensive background without boring the reader with nonessential details. As someone who has almost no knowledge in this realm, or about religion, I found this helpful in navigating throughout her book.

Armstrong (2010) suggests we apply “The Second Step: Look at Your Own World” globally and that we “think in terms of the Confucian concentric circles of compassion, starting with your family, moving out to friends and community, and finally to the country in which you live.” However, it is critical to do this in with no hostility or anger in our surroundings. Society should work on applying compassion from the ground up; this should begin with families, neighbors, and go all the way up to how governments treat their citizens. This burden, according to Armstrong (2010), does not belong to any one individual and the responsibility falls on everyone. By adding this comment of the everyone, Armstrong (2010) has now allowed individuals to put this novel in context of a community and gives the option of relating to others. This particular part of Armstrong (2010) resonated with me in that although it seems completely logical and makes sense, it becomes ironic how this isn’t done. While it would be fairly easy to express compassion within families, even friends and maybe a community, when it comes to extending it globally, this is a concept that most struggle with.

Armstrong’s (2010) following step, “The Fifth Step: Mindfulness”, centralizes around the actual practice of being mindful rather than ajust the theory of it. Armstrong (2010) says, “In mindfulness we mentally stand back and observe our behavior…Mindfulness is not meant to make us morbidly self-conscious, scrupulous, or guilty…Its purpose is simply to help us channel them more creatively.”  Rather than constantly focusing on negative feelings, we have more productive and positive sentiments. If our dispositions are generally positive, this will be directly reflected in the way we approach others, our actions, and our overall self-worth.

Armstrong (2010) notes that how easy we inflict pain on others (“sighing impatiently over a minor inconvenience, grimacing when the clerk is slow at the checkout, or raising your eyebrows in derision at what you regard as a stupid remark.”) but that when these behaviors are projected onto you, someone’s entire demeanor can be affected.  However, this gives individuals the motivation to improve their own attitudes and instead to “learn to savor simple pleasures – a sunset, an apple, or a joke”. I have noticed this more and more in the course of reading this book and how my demeanor can make all that much of a difference. In a house with four other college age students, we each have our own worries but by offering genuine, true concern over something that has no actual impact on me, it gives someone validation. For example, my roommate was worrying over an art project and how well it could be interpreted. By offering her reassurance that it achieved everything she wanted, by offering less than two minutes of my own life, I was able to give the confidence she needed in a time when I could have just easily sighed and pretended to care.

Armstrong (2010)’s eighth chapter, “The Eighth Step: How Should We Speak to One Another?”, uses election times as a prime example for how our two opposing sides address each other. Rather than coming to compassionate compromise, each side spends time tearing down their opposition. Armstrong (2010) says,

“All too often in an argument or debate, we simply listen to others in order to twist their words and use them as grist for our own mill.  True listening means more than simply hearing words that are spoken.”

This is essential for each individual to understand that while each individuals may have different systems of belief, each side is doing what they perceive to be the right or true thing to do. Whenever we address someone, it is important to note our intentions and whether or not we are are communicating our true beliefs or to simply inflict pain. Either way, we should be exploring why this is; is there something that you might be doing to cause this person to feel this way or is there something you can change?

The final step (2010) is “Love Your Enemies”, in which Armstrong (2010) says: “We can stop the vicious cycle of attack and counterattack, strike and counter-strike that holds the world in thrall today only if we learn to appreciate the wisdom of restraint toward the enemy.” Although everyone comes different backgrounds from cultures and the lived experience of each individual, it is significant to note that these should be considered strengths. Per Armstrong (2010), we live in a “global village, everybody is our neighbor” and we need worldly democracy in order to move forward as mankind rather than breaking each other down. This is especially true within my current academic community. Although it is much easier to carry on as though no one cares for anyone else, by sharing a little bit of extra love and comfort to others can change the entire demeanor across our campus.

In each step, Armstrong (2010) uses various examples from society, myths, the media in order to put into perspective the concept of compassion. From this, she builds ways for us to enhance our everyday lives that do not involve making out of this world changes. Instead, building on our current characters and opening our minds to simply further our understanding of not only those around us but intrinsically as well. This book could be applicable in anyone in any phase of life. The takeaway message that should live within each reader is how compassion, in its purest definition, can be applied to each reader. Armstrong (2010) draws on religion to appeal to each reader because her authority allows this. However, even with regards to the religion, this book is accessible to anyone from any walk of life. Armstrong (2010) would argue that no one can ever express too much compassion.

As someone who now has a child, I think this book explores a critical concept that I hope to help my own child to embrace. In the end, each person has the ultimate decision in whether or not they want to implement compassion within their own lives. Armstrong (2010) forced me to stop and truly address my own understanding with compassion but rather than condemning me for not applying it appropriately, her twelve steps worked towards extending my definition for the better. It is always essential to remember “we are what we are because of the hard work, insights, and achievements of countless others.”


Armstrong, K. (2011). Twelve steps to a compassionate life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.


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