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A Well-written Excursion into the Realm of Compassion...
on March 22, 2005
I will admit at the outset that this is not the sort of book I would normally be attracted to as I roamed the shelves of books at a bookstore. It would probably be shelved in the "self-help" section and I don't usually spend any time there. Categorizing Barasch's work as a self-help book, which some reviewers and bookstores have apparently done, is, I think, a mistake, and may result in some potential readers from being exposed to it. Like me, for instance. I probably wouldn't have become aware of "Field Notes on the Compassionate Life" had a publishers' representative not sent it to me for reading and review. I'm glad he did. It is an interesting work and especially well-written; the author has a literary style reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau and Joseph Wood Krutch.
Rather than place the "self-help" label on Barasch's book, I would consider the work a "personal journey" into the meaning and practice of "compassion," that somewhat elusive concept which so often befuddles us and is so often ignored because it smacks of "do-goodism" and "touchy-feely" pop-psychology. Fortunately, Barasch doesn't descend into that muddy swamp; instead, he conducts his search for the "soul of kindness" in a most empirical way by actually doing some field work on the subject (hence, the "Field Notes" in the title), somewhat like a cultural anthropologist going about trying to find out how some specific characteristic of a tribe functions and what its "meaning" is to the members of the group.
If there is anything the world needs (and has always needed, for that matter) it is love, empathy, compassion, and kindliness. Or, maybe, we can sum all of those characteristics up in that good old word "charity" in its full and traditional meaning. Whatever the case, Barasch proceeds to investigate the subject, drawing not only on the experience of his personal encounters with actual human beings, but integrating that experience with data from neuropsychology, biology, quantum physics, history, and the social sciences, with help from theological and philosophical traditions, and even the results from some current research in the field of medical science. Some commonly accepted "truths" are challenged by Barasch. For instance, Barasch finds among bonobo chimpanzees a model for caring group behavior that he believes undermines Darwin's evolutionary idea of the survival of the fittest. Could it be that the great driving force of our evolution was really "survival of the kindest"? And what does this mean about us today and what could this mean about our future?
Regarding what I have just said in the above paragraph, does the word "comprehensive" come to mind? It should, because this is indeed a comprehensive journey into the theory and practice of human benevolence. Barasch is conducting a search into the heart of the meaning of "compassion," using resources from virtually every area of the human experience. What can we learn from people who are exceptionally empathetic in their relation to others? Is there a way to help people become kinder toward other people? How do we and should we treat people who have done us harm? Can we actually transform ourselves and our society in general so that incidents of compassionate and benevolent behavior are increased? How can this be done?
You'll meet many interesting people along this journey the author writes about, including the homeless, the disadvantaged, and the dispossessed. (Barasch actually becomes one of the "homeless" for a period of time, in order to experience the condition.) But you'll also meet people such as an "altruistic" kidney donor, a circumstance which raises a question about far compassionate outreach should be extended. And you'll meet a father who has an extraordinary relationship with the killer of his daughter, and who has forgiven him for the deed. There is a particularly telling chapter which examines the current Middle Eastern crisis and an educational program which is devoted to resolving the differences -- with understanding and compassion -- between the Palestinian and Israeli children who are the major victims in that horrendous conflict.
Now, I know that some readers (particularly those who are aficionados of Ayn Rand's "virtue of selfishness") may be disturbed by Barasch's use of certain terms such as "altruism" and "sacrifice." I want to make them aware they should be careful before pouncing on Barasch's use of those terms and simply dismissing the author as another "irrational and immoral" promulgator of "self-sacrifice." He is not. Read the book carefully and you'll see how he himself wrestles with the issues of altruism and sacrifice. There are extremists on both sides of this question. There are those who are so self-absorbed (genuinely "selfish" in the traditional sense) that everyone wants to avoid them and it is a wonder they can live in normal human society at all. Then there are those who are so "other-absorbed" (genuinely "altruistic" in the Randian sense) that a normal human being would want to avoid them altogether because their "self-obsession" for "others" is so bothersome and so often "suspect." There is a middle (read "moderate") road here which Barasch walks during his journey, avoiding either extreme.
In conclusion, I think "Field Notes on the Compassionate Life" is worth a read by anyone who is interested in human nature, benevolence, compassion, personal happiness, and the future of humanity. The world is in a sad state of affairs. We have tried hate, war, discrimination, capital punishment, and all sorts of other antihuman policies to make what we thought would be a better world. These have failed. For how many centuries does humankind have to knock its head against the same wall of malice toward others until it comes to its senses? Maybe we ought to try a little compassion, a little kindliness, a little benevolence toward our fellow human beings and see if that works. It would certainly be easier on the head, not to mention on the wall.