When I discovered Karen Armstrong’s “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life (book and a summary),” I knew I had found my framework for living an ethical, meaningful life. As I read and re-read the words of those who have influenced me most (bell hooks, Riane Eisler, Ron Miller, Betty Reardon, Shawn Ferch, Stephen Covey, Dr. King, Ghandi, Christ, and so many others), I am pierced to my soul, again and again. They all say the same thing, the same thing their mentors, muses, and guides said, and those before them:
Be kind to one another.
That’s it. That’s the message that matters, and it’s the one we most often disregard. Yesterday, I had one of the best conversations with my students I think we’ve ever had. We were discussing the 5th Habit (from “7 Habits of Highly Effective People“), “Seek First to Understand,” and we explored so many areas. We discussed why we don’t try to understand, what it feels like to be mean in comparison to being kind, why we are afraid to be kind, what it means to have never received empathy, the nature of ethical character, the feelings that form the foundations for both meanness and kindness, the criticality of self-awareness and self-honesty, and the truth that being kind is a practice.
Kindness is both a skill and a frame of mind and being that we can actively cultivate and practice. It isn’t an accident, a happy mischance or inborn talent. It takes constant work and attention to practice kindness and compassion, to build the internal strength and fortitude necessary to maintain its gentleness in the face of cruelty and brutality. But, as with any skill, habit, or practice, it is our choice to continue or not. It is my hope that they will continue their practice, for the rest of their lives.
Every time I think about these conversations, about how I came to this point in my life and the potential for the futures of these women, I possessed by feelings of such immensity and power that I have to breathe deeply and allow them to pass through, around, over. I believe these are moments of alignment, when my heart, mind, body, and spirit are perfectly in tune with our universal purpose. In my more calm and accepting moments, I am humbled by my journey – how each phase of my life prepared me to be this person, to care for these women, to bring something meaningful into this world.
I spent so many years of my life with no purpose, not knowing what purpose meant, or that I might seek and find such a thing. It would be easy to spend time regretting all those ‘lost’ years, but I can’t. Without remembering those meaningless years, my current state would lose much of its richness. Neale Donald Walsch wrote, in one of the “Conversations with God” books “First, you must be who you are NOT in order to be who you ARE.” I believe this is true for both myself and for my students. More than I, more than most of us could ever know, they have been who they are NOT.
Now, they will get the chance to show us who they ARE.