Discernment / Exercises

Discernment Exercise: The School of Life

A secularist pursuit of compassion
I first became aware of Alain de Botton by reading his The Architecture of Happiness, a book of uncommon insight and sensitivity to the human condition. His exploration of place and humanness, of how the shape of our buildings in turn shapes us and the nature of the community we experience reveals a mind that has been nurtured by careful observation, unhurried reflection, and wide reading. I commend The Architecture of Happiness to you.

Alain de Botton is also founder and chair of an enterprise called The School of Life, located in London (http://www.theschooloflife.com/), where ideas are seen as important, and where those ideas are intentionally linked to daily life. “The School of Life is a new enterprise offering good ideas for everyday living,” the website explains. “We are based in a small shop in Central London where we offer a variety of programmes [sic] and services concerned with how to live wisely and well. We address such questions as why work is often unfulfilling, why relationships can be so challenging, why it’s ever harder to stay calm and what one could do to try to change the world for the better. The School of Life is a place to step back and think intelligently about these and other concerns. You will not be cornered by any dogma, but directed towards a variety of ideas—from philosophy to literature, psychology to the visual arts—that tickle, exercise and expand your mind. You’ll meet other curious, sociable and open-minded people in an atmosphere of exploration and enjoyment.” If I lived in London, I would certainly look forward to attending some of their lectures and discussions.

The School of Life is worth noting for several reasons. For one thing, it challenges many of the easy stereotypes Christians tend to hold about secularists. For another, their materials and lectures—at least the ones I’ve read and listened to—are well crafted and astute. Even when I have disagreed, the challenge has deepened my own thinking, forcing me to dig past surface ideas to the deeper issues involved. The School of Life cherishes truth and wants to help human beings flourish in a world where falsehoods proliferate and brokenness haunts everything we seek to accomplish.

For the month of December (2011), The School of Life sponsored a project they defined as an attempt to help people find creative ways to demonstrate compassion, to learn to reach out to others instead of remaining locked in the confines of their own narrow boundaries. Day by day a task was assigned that people could choose to accomplish. Each was designed to be unobtrusive, simple, and accessible, a small step towards caring for others, a practical way to learn to put the idea of compassion into actual practice.

Task 1: Next time you’re on public transport, identify the person who is least “like you,” perhaps by age, appearance or manner, or the person you feel least drawn to. Then, internally, wish them well, hope that their life is happy. That’s it.

Task 2: Think of someone you know who is ill, or sad. Take them a little gift of, for example: the most comforting book you know, the most cheerful flower you can find, the best music you’ve heard on a mix-CD (remember those?), the tastiest treat or the softest socks. Remember that taking the gift is only an excuse to see them and listen to how they’re really doing.

Task 4: “The hidden thoughts in other people’s heads are the great darkness that surrounds us,” writes the historian of conversation Theodore Zeldin. Have a conversation with a stranger today. Write one thing about it that surprised you.

Task 6: Go through your phone book/phone address and find somebody you’ve lost touch with and give them a ring. Tell them the truth saying something like, “I feel sad we’ve lost touch and I’d like to hear how you’re doing.” Who knows where the conversation will lead—but you’re making a connection, you’re acknowledging your past relationship and you’re saying that they are in your thoughts which is why you called.

Task 10: Say hello to someone who is homeless: People who spend their days on the streets often talk about how painful it is to be ignored by the hundreds of people who pass by them. You don’t need to give money. Just a quick hello and a smile will do.

Task 11: Take a photograph of yourself in somebody else’s shoes. Literally. In their shoes. Share the photograph on our Facebook page and write a sentence or two about the person whose shoes you are wearing. Ask yourself, what does the world look like if I imagine being this person. It could be your partner, somebody at work, even a stranger you’ve struck up a conversation with.

Task 14: As winter draws in, one of the loveliest sounds is the blackbird’s call at dusk. Make a gesture of thanks and connection by leaving birdfeed out over winter—don’t stop till the seasons turn warm and fruitful again.

Task 15: We all have times where we are angry at ourselves. But would we be as furious with a friend for the same reason? Be kind to yourself. Turn your compassion inward as well as outward.

Task 20: Have you just finished a good book? Why not leave it in a public space for someone else to pick up and enjoy?

Task 23: The most generous gift you can offer someone is the act of unconditional listening. For a whole day listen intently to every person you have a conversation with. Do not interject with your own stories, opinions or advice. Simply ask to hear more from them. See how their sense of peace grows and how much more you learn.

Task 24: It’s difficult to know what to do when someone on the street is begging and asks you for money. Giving cash may do no good—but why not try for your month of compassion cutting down on buying takeout coffee and snacks for yourself, and instead offering others who might need it a hot drink, a bite to eat and a kind word.

Task 25: The philosopher Nietzsche wrote, “Among the small but endlessly abundant and therefore very effective things that science ought to heed more than the great, rare things, is goodwill. I mean those expressions of a friendly disposition in interactions, that smile of the eye, those handclasps … It is the continual manifestation of our humanity, its ray of light … in which everything grows.” Is there someone you see every day—a shopkeeper, the neighbor opposite [sic]—but have never spoken to? Say hello next time you pass.

Task 29: It’s the last day of The School of Life’s Month of Reaching Out. So where do we go from here? Let’s try to make compassion and kindness part of our everyday way of thinking and acting in the world.

All of which raises some questions discerning Christians might be wise to consider. (I’m including some questions that apply to The School of Life in general, and so requires some time on their website.)


1. What tends to come to mind when you think of people who identify themselves as secularists? Where do these ideas come from? How many secularists have you known well?

2. What is your first impression or immediate response of the tasks proposed for The School of Life’s Month of Reaching Out? Why do you think you reacted this way? If your reaction was primarily negative, why? Would not the world be a better place if more people acted as the tasks suggest? Is it possible your negative reaction is a measure of your lack of compassion?

3. One criticism that can be raised about this effort by The School of Life is that compassion is finally not outward actions but an inward virtue, a matter not essentially of behavior but of the character of the heart. To what extent is this criticism true? To the extent it is true, what series of ideas or tasks would you develop for someone wishing to become more compassionate? How would your list be similar to The School of Life’s? How would it differ?

4. To what extent do the tasks listed by The School of Life express characteristics of your daily life?

5. Do a study of compassion in Scripture. Which texts define it? Which texts identify the sort of behaviors demonstrated by compassionate people? How does Jesus demonstrate compassion? How does the list of tasks developed by The School of Life correlate with this biblical date.

6. Describe the most compassionate person you ever met. How did they become so compassionate?

7. Which lectures and events sponsored by The School of Life would you attend if you lived in London? What materials available on the website might be good for your Christian small group to discuss?

8. What might a Christian learn from The School of Life?

9. What could the church learn from The School of Life?