Treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. This golden rule formed the basis of a wish expressed by Karen Armstrong, one of the most popular authors on religion today, to restore the ethic of reciprocity as a central global religious doctrine. The Charter for Compassion, launched in November 2009, is a product of thousands of people from more than 100 countries who provided their input on principles embodying the golden rule. A multi-faith, multi-national group of religious thinkers and leaders (the Council of Conscience) crafted the final version of the document. As we celebrate religious holidays and ponder personal as well as societal suffering, vividly captured by the Brazilian photographer, Sebastião Salgado, it is worth pondering abbreviations of the thoughts expressed in the Charter:
- 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.
- It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain.
- We therefore call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the center of morality and religion
- We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous, and dynamic force in our polarized world.
These words may sound hollow in the wake of a sluggish economy, personal problems, natural and man-made disasters. One might be forgiven for suffering from compassion overload as 24/7 images of different tragedies flicker across televisions, computer screens and mobile devices. After all, there are only so many hours in the day to attend to responsibilities. However, more than 95,000 people have signed the charter and many of them have heeded the call to connect digitally and in real life by “walking a mile in another person’s shoes.”
Seattle was the first city to affirm the Charter in 2010 and has been designated as compassionate, i.e. a location that recognizes compassion as an ethical imperative in its policy decisions. The Seattle Heart Map is a public information resource connecting individuals, groups, and organizations committed to creating a culture of compassion in the region. The Greater Vancouver Compassionate Network was similarly inspired to keep ethics and spirituality alive in their communities and workplaces. Closer to home, the Louisville Society for Human Resource Management has compiled a list of organizational policies designed to instill compassion in the work environment.
Skeptics may counter that altruism is the prerogative of youth or a selected subgroup known as the “givers” among us. Indiscriminate “giving” of time/emotion/help can leave one vulnerable to “takers or users.” Adam Grant, who juggles roles as a Google advisor and researcher on workplace dynamics, has published several studies in leading journals arguing that the key to success is tirelessly helping others. According to a NY Times magazine article, the most successful givers are those “who rate high in concern for others,” but are strategic in their giving.
The choice to focus compassion on selected people in our immediate environment or to join an international quest for peace and justice is one that is already being made by people around us. To quote Ghandi: You must be the change you wish to see in the world.