FIELD NOTES ON THE COMPASSIONATE LIFE
A Search for the Soul of Kindness
By Marc Ian Barasch
Rodale. 356 pp. $24.95
Had I not agreed to review Marc Ian Barasch's most recent book, I probably would not have made it past the first page, with its mention of "love-vibes," much less the ninth, with its characteristic assertion that "real bodhisattvas make friends with themselves." My loss, though, had I not read on.
For in spite of Barasch's penchant for phrases like "love molecules," he has written a fascinating, readable and, at times, deeply affecting survey of how kindness works. You do not have to share his belief in an imminent "popular uprising of the heart," "the subversive innervation of some neural net of kindness," to appreciate his own carefully woven net of biology, wisdom literature, pop culture and interviews with altruists from around the world. Nor do you need to be moved by everything he has to say about kindness (I wasn't) to wind up feeling rather kindly disposed toward him (I did). Barasch brings several enviable strengths to his subject. He shares with the best science writers an ability to make you feel the excitement of scientific discovery. He is also able to re-create dramatic scenes with engaging vividness, as when, in a chapter on forgiveness, he goes to interview both a murderer and the father of his young victim. Not surprising in a practitioner of Buddhist meditation, his keen attention to his own states of mind, whether in a shopping mall or during a long-delayed attempt at reconciliation with an old enemy, will interest anyone who struggles to be kinder in a not-so-kind world.
According to Barasch, that world is actually kinder than we think. He offers an array of examples, not confined to our species, ranging from the reconciliation strategies of bonobo apes to the public response to Sept. 11, 2001. With the exceptions of two kidney donors, one overbearing and one underappreciated, Barasch is zealous to show that "simple kindness never fails to live up to its billing." His appreciation for human potential is boundless; his sense of a tragic dimension in human affairs is virtually nil. Perhaps for that reason he never asks if the kindest people might be those who could love humankind even if it wasn't evolving toward ever higher levels of wonderfulness. Imagine that.
What I found most troubling about the book is its apparent assumption that kindness can be considered apart from justice. Barasch tries a brief stint at pretending to be homeless, for example, and emerges with a more open heart to the plight of those on the streets and a more open hand to their entreaties, but without any apparent outrage that such an obscenity as American homelessness should even exist. Though not without political implications, his book remains obstinately apolitical. This is unfortunate given that enlightened social policy is often the humblest and sometimes the most effectual form of kindness. It allows a poor mother to get a check every time the first of the month rolls around as opposed to a dose of "love molecules" every time an empathic type goes through a midlife crisis.
At times Barasch seems on the verge of saying as much. Two chapters before his conclusion, he mentions that "children are starving . . . our designer sweats are connected to designer sweatshops." Get ready for a big surprise, I thought. In fact, I was not surprised when part of his penultimate chapter was devoted to how we might best convey our innate human kindness to extraterrestrials. As goes an old working-class quip, it's nice for some. What would be nice for the aliens closer to home is to have a living wage, health insurance and, with no snub intended to the milk of human kindness, teeth.
To say that Barasch, who identifies himself as an "ultraliberal," is not aware of such people or evinces no compassion for them would be untrue. It is more accurate to say that if "Field Notes on the Compassionate Life" is the work of an ultraliberal, it has something to tell us about why ultraconservatives have come to hold such power. Referring at one point to a priest who has organized a small army of therapists to reconcile combatants in Colombia's ongoing guerrilla war, Barasch writes, "He knows that the world has had its fill of grand social engineers, the ones with the Big Ideas who pretty well screwed up the twentieth century for the rest of us." No matter that one of those Big Ideas was Social Security, an act of social engineering that showed more substantive kindness to more people than all therapists, Lamas and oxytocin-mongers living and dead. If the Social Security system is to be dismantled, that is partly because intelligent people like Barasch were busy composing imaginary letters to extraterrestrials when a letter to their congressional representatives might have been more to the point.
But to leave things there is to be worse than unkind; it is to be unjust. As revealed in "Field Notes on the Compassionate Life," Barasch strikes us as a man humanized by suffering (cancer, divorce, multiple betrayals) who has chosen to believe in -- and to go beyond many of us in working for -- a more humane world. In a time of "faith-based initiatives" and so-called compassionate conservatism, a book like his has to be taken with a grain of salt. Social welfare cannot be left to the whims of volunteers or reduced to a branch of holistic health. But with a deluge of post-election treatises about to overwhelm us by the sheer weight of their pomposity, Barasch's plea for practicable human kindness may prove a revivifying gulp of fresh air.