He captured me with his first paragraph:
“Every now and then, I’ll meet an escapee; someone who has broken free of self-centeredness and lit out for the territory of compassion. You’ve met them, too, those people who seem to emit a steady stream of, for want of a better word, love vibes. As soon as you come within range, you feel embraced, accepted for who you are. For those of us who suspect that you rarely get something for nothing, such geniality can be discomfiting: They don’t even know me. It’s just generic cornflakes. But it feels so good to be around them. They stand there, radiating photons of goodwill, and despite yourself, you beam back, and the world, in a twinkling, changes.”
Thus begins Marc Barasch’s Field Notes on the Compassionate Life: A Search for the Soul of Human Kindness. An inspiration for Tom Shadyac’s film “I Am”, the book chronicles Barasch’s quest to find the origins and essence of human compassion. Why bother with an entire book about compassion (a term Barasch describes as “kindness without condition”)? Well, as he puts it, “A compassionate life is more fulfilling….it’s only when the ego bows out that the curtain rises on real life.”
Compassion: The Transformer
Field Notes is one of the most thought provoking, inspiring and remarkable “self help” books I’ve ever read. In a writing style that’s friendly, funny, intelligent and never pious, Barasch takes us on his journey to find answers to provocative questions with tremendous implications: What if the great driving force of our evolution were actually “survival of the kindest”? How can compassion, a trait hardwired into our nervous system and waiting to be awakened, transform our lives? Can we increase our own compassion quotient with practice? And how can we open our hearts to those who have wronged us?
To explore these questions, Barasch draws on evolutionary biology, social psychology, spirituality, history and his own experiences, like living for several days as a homeless person. He also interviews people who have gone against their own self-interests to help others, including those who forgave and even befriended murderers of family members (Chapter 10, Loving the Monster); citizens of Nazi-occupied Europe who rescued persecuted Jews (Chapter 8, The Altruist); and people who voluntarily gave kidneys to strangers in need of transplants (Chapter 7, The Giveaway). The stories of why they did what they did, and the impact it had on their lives, are unforgettable.
The Kidney List Expanded
The kidney donors particularly struck a chord with me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve kept a mental “kidney list”: a short roster of people to whom I’d donate a kidney if they ever needed one. (Kinda bizarre, I know, but aren’t we all?) Getting on my kidney list is no easy task. After all, you only have one kidney to give. Barasch made me think: Could I expand my kidney list to include every human being in the world? Even people who, at least in my mind, had harmed me?
Maybe I’ll start more slowly by not harboring hatred toward them. As one of Barasch’s subjects — a woman whose pregnant sister was murdered by a teenage thrill-kill from a wealthy family — memorably points out: “Hate is like drinking poison, and expecting it to kill the other guy. But it doesn’t kill him, it kills us.” Like Barasch did with a former business partner of his, we can forgive people who have wronged us, as much – if not more – for our own sake as theirs:
“I was persuaded by a remark I once heard the Archbishop Desmond Tutu make: ‘To forgive is the highest form of self-interest. I need to forgive you so that my anger and resentment and lust for revenge don’t corrode my being.’ I was corroding in my prison of ill-feeling. If I depended on my enemy to say he was sorry, then he was my jailer. I resolved that no matter what happened between us, I would filch the key and set myself free.”
The Audacious Altruist
Field Notes also examines why altruism can provoke negative reactions, like one of the voluntary kidney donors whose husband “just about threw up” when she told him what she was doing. Insights from the book came in handy recently when a good friend was greeted with hostility for having the audacity to tell a group of family friends that she preferred they make charitable donations in lieu of gifts for her birthday. You would’ve thought she asked them to ram bamboo shoots under their fingernails.
Thanks to Barasch, I understood that her act of altruism had (unintentionally) made them feel guilty or somewhat “less than”, which manifested in anger towards her:
“If they’re normal, then maybe I’m deficient, so there must be something wrong with them. Their lights are on so bright, we find ourselves looking down for their feet of clay. What are they up to, anyway? Which category of too-good-to-be-true should we check off: people-pleaser, queen of denial, religious nut, other? After their noble come-ons, their freebies of grace, what will they try to finagle in return? When we look behind their boons, will we discover a sell-by-date stamp?”
Learning To Be Kinder
Barasch’s insights helped me not only understand why my friend’s selfless act was met with anger, but why some people have reactions verging on horror when they learn I’ve applied for the Peace Corps. The understanding I gleaned from Field Notes helps me be kinder towards them. And as Barasch concludes, that’s really what it all boils down to:
“I often wonder if those most gifted with ‘caring thinking’ aren’t some sort of harbingers. But we don’t need a new set of genes or extra smarts to share our candy. Something within us already conduces toward heartfulness, and its nature is to grow with the merest effort. Aldous Huxley, asked on his deathbed to sum up what he had learned in his eventful life, said, ‘It’s embarrassing to tell you this, but it seems to come down mostly to just learning to be kinder.’ And though I set out to write a more hardheaded, less softhearted (and perhaps less softheaded) book, I can only conclude the same.”