A few months ago I read and reviewed Karen Armstrong’s memoir The Spiral Staircase here. At the time I never imagined that I would have the opportunity of meeting her. Imagine my delight, then, when she announced that she would use her TED (Technology, Education, and Design Prize Money) to create a Charter for Compassion–and even greater excitement when I learned that the Fetzer Institute would become a partner in that effort.

I encourage you to watch the video below and promise the 21 minutes will go by fast.  If you don’t have that much time, you can watch the wonderful short video of the charter itself, read by people from many countries, religions, and all ages.

As a result of our partnership with TED and Karen,my colleagues Susan and Gillian participated in the Launch of the Charter, and the three of us traveled to NYC to talk with TED folks and Karen herself to plan another meeting in January.

I hope to ask Karen about the role her memoir writing played in the selection of the Charter as her life work. In the TED prize video above Karen reiterates the stories she tells in her memoir about how failures led to finding her calling in life. Her love of learning, distaste for fundamentalism and oppressive hierarchy, and discovery of compassion as the root of all religion eventually overcame all the obstacles to her first two career choices–the nunnery and the academy. Today she is one of the most widely known writers and speakers on the subject of religion in the world.

Memoir writing done well leads to a clarifying of one’s purpose in life. I can think of no better example of this than Karen Armstrong’s memoirs leading to the Charter for Compassion.

Perhaps career counseling should include the writing of a memoir. What was the shape of your spirit in your youth? Are you answering the call of your own uniqueness in your life and in your work?

Shirley Showalter


  1. clairhochstetler on December 2, 2009 at 7:51 am

    Shirley, she really is worth listening to – and I'm glad to know about this Charter for Compassion. The Parliament of World Religion starts tomorrow here in Australia (in Melbourne) and it would be timely for that body to pick up on this effort to endorse and proliferate it. I don't see Karen on the program but I imagine someone is carrying that agenda. If she ever comes to Australia I want to know about that – it would be great to get her involved in our multi-faith national conference for Spiritual Care Australia!Regarding memoirs and encouraging reminiscence – that's a powerful tool we health care chaplain's deploy and encourage among the elderly in particular because it carries the potential to tap deep spiritual resources within. Glad to know about this blog! -Clair, in Canberra

  2. shirleyhs on December 4, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Clair, so glad you found Karen Armstrong and this blog. Welcome! Yes, I am sure Karen has an Australia outreach of some kind. The World Parliament would surely be a great venue for the Charter. If you would like to reflect on how chaplains use memoir in ministering to the elderly and ill, I would love to read it. Maybe you could do a guest post on this blog?

  3. jerrywaxler on December 28, 2009 at 5:05 am

    Wow. This is awesome. What a wonderful service she is performing by promoting peace, and what a wonderful service you are performing by promoting her. My most ecumenical work along this line so far has been inspired by Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea. (Here's a link to my essay: “Find meaning through service” or “Making peace with the peasants of Pakistan”Now, I will put Spiral Staircase on my list. Blogging is the new “word of mouth.” Thanks!Jerry

  4. shirleyhs on January 1, 2010 at 8:31 am

    Thanks, Jerry. I recommend your post to all readers of this one. Happy New Year!

  5. shirleyhs on January 1, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    Thanks, Jerry. I recommend your post to all readers of this one. Happy New Year!

  6. David on September 2, 2011 at 10:01 am

    Thank you for the article Shirleyhs, as always I find Karen Armstrong’s addresses deeply informative, refreshingly centred and inspirational. Keep writing the blog Shirleyhs and many thanks. David

    • shirleyhs on September 2, 2011 at 5:33 pm

      Glad you enjoyed, David. Come back again!

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