Field Notes on the Compassionate Life: Hope for Humanity


Marc Ian Barasch's "Field Notes on the Compassionate Life: A Search for the Soul of Kindness" is NOT a self-help book that relies on lots of list-making and end-of-chapter exercises in an attempt to teach you how to live a more tenderhearted and benevolent existence. In fact, Barasch, a former editor of Psychology Today, Natural Health, and New Age Journal, has put together a thought-provoking book that somehow manages to inspire the reader to be more compassionate but does so without the traditional self-help approach. In fact, Barasch's presentation probably does more justice to the topic of compassion that a self-help book ever could.

Interesting historical tidbits of cultural, scientific, and spiritual information pertaining to such topics as altruism, empathy, and forgiveness are gracefully interwoven with the latest research findings, current events, and modern-day philosophies. Quotes from the well-known likes of the Dalai Lama right on down to the infamous-in-his-own-right Ivan Simpson, a murderer and rapist locked-up for life in the Telfair State Prison in Georgia, are added to the mix in just the proper dosage to keep their message relevant. However, this book is more than just the spewing of facts and citations; this is an actual journey.

Barasch's "circle of compassion" field trip takes the reader along on an adventure that begins with meetings with bonobo research monkeys in Georgia and that nears its completion with a conversation with a twelve-hundred-word-speaking Congo African gray parrot that lives in an apartment in Harlem. Along the way, numerous enlightening side-trips are taken; one to the Institute of HeartMath in the northern California hills, which demonstrates that the heart really can and often does rule the mind, and another to the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, California, which works to reveal a deeper meaning to the "you in me, me in you" connection that we can potentially share.

During the on-the-road explorations, insight is gained into the world of highly empathic children suffering from Williams' syndrome, as well as the homeless souls living on the streets of Denver--Barasch willingly being one of them. Organ donors who have scattered parts of themselves throughout the country are encountered, as are Palestinian and Israeli youth joined together in New Jersey as part of the Building Bridges for Peace program. New York City residents who banded together after the collapse of the Twin Towers share their thoughts, as does the father of an adopted girl who forgave and built a lasting friendship with the man who killed his precious child. The journey finally concludes at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence in Mountain View, California.

Those who trek alongside Barasch will be allowed access to his unique concepts. He "can't help seeing the world in Primatevision…Humanity's shenanigans do suddenly look an awful lot like the Planet of the Apes…How many of [our] little daily transactions are tainted by trying to maximize rank, secure a better food supply, and maneuver for breeding privileges? How many are out of pure human generosity, compassion, and sensitivity to others?" He worries about "our evolutionary juncture…extending our right hand to each other while the left is still at each other's throats."

He questions, "…do we only have a fixed quota of loving to allocate between family and the world at large, so that if one receives more, the other gets less?...does altruism leave less room for ordinary affection?...from what source does altruism spring?" Perhaps less of a pondering and more of a realization, he wonders, "Can something as simple as listening and being heard liberate the world? And would it be too much to agree, once and for all, that the heart is the country to which we all belong, and love the only state we owe our allegiance?"

He believes that "unresolved emotional pain is the great contagion of our time--of all time" and that "if we really want to heal our world, we'd better find an antidote beyond the topical remedies of truces and treaties." Perhaps unknowingly, the solution he seeks comes in the form of his own proposed Platinum Rule that declares, "Do unto others as they would like to be done unto."

By viewing compassion from the level of our primate cousins, to interactions between like-minded souls, as well as opposing cultures, and on into the galaxy, we become aware of the fact that the "circle of compassion" spirals ever outwards. From the bonobo-related theory of the "survival of the kindest" to the Jewish wisdom of "be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle," we are reminded, "Compassion is not a gift, but a path." You can begin your journey along such a path by spending time with Marc Ian Barasch while he gathers his "Field Notes on the Compassionate Life: A Search for the Soul of Kindness."


Donna McLaughlin Schwender is the "soul proprietor" of One-Eared Dog, Ink. As a freelance writer living in upstate New York, she can be reached at schwender@aol.com.