You Can Do This Standing On One Foot

Friends For Life

Religious scholar and former nun Karen Armstrong had a very brilliant, very simple idea for how to heal the world. She shared it on the TED stage and invited the whole world to sign a charter agreeing to live their lives in a way to try to abide by it. The people who signed the charter range from Queen Noor and Deepak Chopra to people you probably know personally.

If someone told you that there was one formula, a single credo that would span faiths, national boundaries and even species to sow peace, could you imagine it?

You already know it: The Golden Rule.

Simply put by Karen Armstrong:

“Look into your own heart; discover what it is that gives you pain. And then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.”

Her TED talk is both moving and a fascinating reframe of faith, belief and action.

Five centuries before Christ, Confucius taught his pupils that the principle to never treat another being in a way you yourself would not want to be treated was the foundation for every other teaching.

The great Rabbi Hillel, was once approached by a pagan who offered to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could recite the Torah standing on one foot. Rabbi Hillel stood on one foot and said, ”That which is hateful to you, do not do unto another. That is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go study.”

This simple idea, infinitely complex to put into action, is Armstrong's offering of a beacon. She sees it as a unifying idea running through the three great Abrahamic faiths and the key to running a kind of constant “self-test” of how we are dealing with each other. She doesn’t pretend it is easy. We are flawed.

Karen Armstrong’s vision, as stated in The Charter for Compassion, attracted the attention of a group of Houstonians and thus was born a week of talks, meditations and opportunities for compassionate community engagement through direct action.

Should our compassion extend to members of other species? How would embracing this Charter for Compassion impact animal shelters?

“Concern for others is such an ancient theme that scholars have identified it with the very beginning of religion. In her 2006 book, The Great Transformation, Armstrong observed how care about all living beings became a hallmark of the important time in prehistory called ‘the axial age.’ During the periods from 900 BCE to 200 BCE ancient religious sages in China, India, Israel and Greece taught that your compassion must somehow extend to the entire world…Each tradition developed its own formulations of The Golden Rule: do not do unto others what you would not have done to you. As far as the Axial sages were concerned, respect for the sacred rights of all beings was not orthodox belief, it was religion.”1

I’d like to suggest that compassion must, to come to full realization, be something that starts with a kindness we extend to ourselves and that we then  offer to all beings. It is not enough to practice compassion toward those like us. We must love and strive to connect outside our tribe, with those not our familiars and who are different than us.

If you will come with me on the premise that compassion must not stop at the boundaries of our family, race, religion, gender or nation then perhaps you will add to that list one more: species.

We share the planet with animals who are sentient beings who, like us, experience the bonds of family, the grief of loss, the joy of play and the deep desire to protect their young. They feel terror, pain and longing. They have memory. And maybe most like us, they strive to live. Given the choice, they will almost always choose to live.

We are just now beginning to unlock the complexities of how they relate to each other and to us. Their inner lives are richer than we ever imagined.


Animals speak in languages too ancient and strange for us to comprehend so sometimes we teach them some of ours. When we do, we find they are capable of tremendous empathy and deep compassion. Washoe was a female chimpanzee who was the first chimpanzee to learn American Sign Language. “One of Washoe’s caretakers, Kat, was pregnant. Washoe, who had lost two babies, was very interested in her swelling abdomen and would ask about “baby.” When Kat miscarried and returned to the lab after an absence of several days, she signed to Washoe that she had lost her baby. Washoe looked down to the ground. Then she looked into Kat’s eyes and signed ‘cry,’ touching her cheek just below her eye.2

3,570 times

Even animals not so genetically like us are shining examples of faithfulness to which most of us can only aspire. Hachiko (pictured) was an Akita now enshrined in a national monument in Japan. At the end of every day, he greeted  his owner, Hidesaburo Ueno, a professor at the University of Toyko as he got off the train. One day the professor died of a cerebral hemorrhage and never returned home. For the next 9 years, 9 months and 15 days until his own death, Hachiko awaited Ueno’s return appearing each day at the precise time the train was due at the station and waiting until it pulled out again.

We have made lives with domestic animals we have tamed. In The Little Prince, the wonderful children’s book that is really not a children’s book at all, is found the  idea that “once you tame a thing, you are responsible for it forever.”

And yet, we created a system to “shelter” animals that became the most massive and efficient killing machine in history. We have exterminated them for being too old, too sick, too frightened. We killed them for being young enough to need to nurse their mother or for being a mother who has babies to nurse. We have killed them for the random chance of being born a certain breed. Hachiko would be killed in many shelters that label Akitas “unadoptable” dogs.

A New Model of Sheltering Animals

As a no kill shelter, we do not have a corner on compassion for animals. Thankfully, it happens all over Houston.

But we do have a unique way of perceiving what a shelter owes the animals who enter the program and how we have the opportunity to express that compassion through our actions as an organization. Our shelter model differs radically from traditional Houston shelters. 75% of the animals that we rescue, rehabilitate and send to homes would be found “unadoptable” at other shelters.

What does this mean in practical fact? At traditional shelters, it is possible for an animal to be too old, too frightened, too small or missing too much fur to be given the chance at life. Next month we will take a more in depth look at the Houston shelter landscape and how we all fit into addressing the problems of community animals.

But for this month, right now, the premise that we invite you to start with is that fully actualized compassion is only possible when we act in a way that acknowledges each individual life  (human or other) as uniquely, sacredly, valuable. That is the cultural imperative.

Every Animal Matters. Full stop.

After that, to paraphrase Rabbi Hillel, the rest is commentary.

  • 1.Paul Waldau, Animal Rights: What everyone Needs to Know, Oxford University Press, 2010, ppg, 132-133   
  • Paul Waldauis Associate Professor and Principal Faculty Member for the online graduate program in Anthrozoology at Canisius College and President of the Religion and Animals Institute. He has served four times as the Bob Barker Lecturer on Animal Law at Harvard Law School.
  • 2.Steven Wise, J.D., Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals, Perseus Books, 2000, pg. 213. Forward by Dr. Jane Goodall.
  • Steven Wise, J.D. teaches Animal Rights Law at Harvard Law School, Vermont Law School, John Marshall Law School and the Masters Program in Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University Veterinary Medical School.