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Field Notes on the Compassionate Life: A Search for the Soul of Kindness    by Marc Ian Barasch order for
Field Notes on the Compassionate Life
by Marc Ian Barasch
Order:  USA  Can
Rodale, 2005 (2005)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This book is not what I expected, though the 'Field Notes' in the title should have clued me in. It's a lot less philosophy than a thoughtful investigation of instances of compassion in humanity, where it comes from in our ancestry, and where it might lead us as a species.

Marc Ian Barasch starts by looking for the roots of compassion in our hominid forebears, finding more instances in cooperative bonobos than in often belligerent chimps. He discusses bonobo Kanzi's acquisition of the tools for symbolic thinking, part of an investigation of 'what an ape brain can do' that reminds me of SF author David Brin's heartening Uplift series. Barasch explores the 'Golden Rule' across religions, telling us that empathy goes one step further - 'Do unto others as they would like to be done unto.' He speaks of a 'quiet revival' of compassion in major religious centers (I appreciated the comment that a 'good organizational consultant would counsel the world's major faiths to reexamine their original mission statements.)' And he quotes Philo of Alexandria, who said 'Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.'

The author discusses the 'sliding scale between head and heart' and why people get uneasy around those who exhibit more heart than they do. He finds examples of the great-hearted in kids with Williams' syndrome, who have extraordinary empathy. At the other end of the heart/mind scale, he meets people with Asperger's, who lack empathy. He discusses research at the Institute of HeartMath, which claims that inducing specific emotional states through practice with biofeedback can reduce stress, promote health, and positively influence educational outcomes. Next, the author looks at the characteristics of the sort of people who give strangers the shirt off their backs - individuals who donated a kidney. He tells us that they 'exemplify how to live in the world as if it is the benevolent place we wish it were.' Other altruistic 'Givers' examined range from Holocaust rescuers to 9/11 firemen.

Barasch moves on to forgiveness of an enemy, in particular cases in which families of victims of horrific crime have forgiven the perpetrators. He believes that 'Unresolved emotional pain is the great contagion of our time - of all time.' He explores a program 'Building Bridges' between young Palestinian and Israeli women, kindnesses that emerged in the aftermath of 9/11, and reconciliation efforts in arenas of conflict around the world. He even considers the importance of incorporating messages of compassion in SETI (Search of Extraterrestrial Intelligence) communications aimed at our sentient neighbors out in space. Barasch tells us that 'A society based on universal compassion is not just our only hope; it is an evolutionary imperative.' Like him, I hope that mankind will grow to be kinder, and suggest Field Notes on the Compassionate Life as an important and excellent reference on the subject.

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