Earlier this month, I was at the Emirates Literature Festival for the second year in a row. The festival was bigger and better than last year and an impressive list of authors, scholars, thinkers, including religious historian Karen Armstrong. The line for her to sign books was at least 100 people long. Ah, I thought to myself, I get to see her in Doha by myself.
Well, it wasn’t quite a 1:1 but she was giving a lecture on a much smaller scale at Georgetown University in Qatar. Sure enough, I turned up, sat in the third row, and waited to see what all the fuss was about. Because while I had heard a lot about Dr. Armstrong, I had never heard from the woman herself.
I was not disappointed. She gave a 45 minute brief history of the religions of the world, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and even the Greeks. Now this was particularly refreshing to me because while I am a Christian, I often tire of talk about “People of the Book” as though the rest, and much more ancient traditions didn’t exsist.
Then she started on her recent work, A Charter for Compassion, which she was able to develop as a result of winning a TEDprize.
She spoke at length about how the important thing we needed to do was have compassion for others. I admittedly have been on a dwindling supply – as you’ve probably noticed via my revolution series. Instead of feeling one with humanity, I’ve felt slightly at war with it. Weary. Tired.
Using the refrain: “What is wrong with people?”
But Karen Armstrong, a refreshing take on a scholar who applies her research to everyday life, called me back to the true self I want to be. I want to be someone who treats others as she wants to be treated. This is not an easy practice, nor is it an optional one, Armstrong admonished the audience. No one will argue this is a good idea. Even during the break out session of TedxCMUQ that I attended this weekend the idea that we should think of others when building a Utopian society (the group exercise given to us) was one of the first ones to pop up in the brainstorm.
“It’s not whether you agree with it or not,” Dr. Armstrong said, “Do you do it?”
I was sitting the audience and realizing that in fact, no, I couldn’t say that I did. And I felt ashamed. Because while I am a modern working mother, and I am an active writer, I am in my core a human being. Strip away all these titles and roles and accomplishments and all that remains are my tiny contributions to the world immediately around me: my co-workers, my friends, my family, my neighbors.
“Don’t push thoughts of pain away,” she was telling us, this woman who is a bastion of academic excellence on religious history. “Let it in. Compassion begins with yourself.”
And this may be where I’ve gone wrong. For a long time I’ve been living life according to how others prescribe it for themselves. And yet simultaneously there is a voice that is calling me out of this path and into something else. A non-traditional one certainly, that doesn’t come without fear.
But Armstrong reminded me of the person I want to be as opposed to the person I’m becoming.
I will feel pain now instead of pushing it away. Pain for Japan, and Libya, and Yemen, and the family of a colleague who are suffering a loss, and for my husband whose uncle passed away earlier this year, and for myself, the dreams I let fade away when I was too young and under the influence of someone who did not have my best interests at heart.
In all this feeling I hope instead of being overwhelmed as is the constant fear (and hence holding it at bay) to be more open and accepting of myself and those around me.
Go ahead. Give me a try. Remind me that the jaded, angry person I was, is not who I really am.