No Simple Steps

The theologian, Karen Armstrong, has been wise with her book, Twelve Steps to A Compassionate Life. Instead of one of her customary tomes, she has produced Twelve Steps as a handy read that you can easily tuck into your bag. Furthermore, the words “Twelve Steps” resonate throughout America and if I can become a compassionate person in twelve steps, I’m all for it. Buy the book!

Begin reading and you find yourself in the company of a theologian who knows more about the history of religion than perhaps any one in the world. You will also discover that there are no simple steps to becoming a person of compassion. But then there wouldn’t be, would there? Developing compassion is a complex business.  Nonetheless, one can, guided by Armstrong--who is guided by the historical greats--make some major moves in that direction.

I think we are far more able to be compassionate toward others than toward ourselves. We are pretty quick to show up with the chicken soup for a friend in need. We are perhaps less compassionate with strangers and certainly with ourselves. Self-compassion lies buried beneath the layers of “shoulds” and “have tos” that direct our lives. When did you last cut yourself some slack?

Only last week I had to catch myself as I waited while an elderly and infirm couple ahead of me in the checkout line, slowly and carefully lifted each purchase out of their cart. A laborious process for both, it took them ages to empty their cart.

I thought because she-- his wife, I am assuming-- was standing behind the cart, that she was in charge of pushing it forward as they progressed.  Not so. The cart did not move forward and therefore, I could not begin to empty my own. The husband was standing ahead of her and their cart. When he had finished fumbling with his credit card and they were finally checked out, he reached back to pull the cart gently forward while his wife, her fingers clutching the rail, her feet somewhat dragging, moved haltingly along behind him.

I watched them leave, the man pulling the grocery-laden cart, the woman, leaning forward, supported by the rail.

My head? I went from annoyance and impatience: why did I choose this line? I am going to be late if they don’t get moving. To curiosity: is there something the matter with these old people? To a kind of sadness: They are both so very old and wobbly. To, ultimately, a surge of respect for their enormous effort, their heroic steps to forge ahead in life. They had left home and safety to purchase their food.

In a few minutes I had shifted from being an absolute crank to having a heart full of compassion for those two people.

Perhaps some of you move to compassion more swiftly than I or possibly inhabit compassion 24/7, in which case, God bless you, you are healing the world. I can be a bit slow sometimes, but these days, instead of berating myself, I thank God that I do get there, most of the time, and that I am aware of my process as I move from one emotional state to another.

Over time, I have learned to be gentler with myself and I am grateful for self-compassion when I allow it to arise.


Written for What I Know to Be True by Cecily Stranahan, our companion on this journey of reflection and self-discovery. Visit Cecily's Blog at