Various people become my spiritual teachers for different lengths of time, from minutes to years. One of them recently sent me The Compassionate Life by Marc Ian Barasch. As I read, I found that the book added a strong layer of awakening to my motivation to serve. It is simply the best book I know on the golden-rule practice of empathetically putting yourself in the position of others. It brings together neuroscience, ethology, psychology, humble and gripping autobiographical narratives, moving stories of friends and neighbors, and a generous supply of quotes and biographical bits from various religious traditions with a gentle emphasis on Buddhism. In what follows, I summarize chapters and comment a bit.
Marc Ian Barasch
The first chapter begins with an experience that the author had during his ceremony of taking the bodhisattva vow to serve all beings. “At some point . . . it did seem as if my vision suddenly cleared. I glimpsed, like a sky swept clean of clouds, everyone’s innate okayness.” Then, after some definitions of compassion, he tells one amazing story after another about a couple who live near him: they have turned their lives into service for others as occasions of significant need arise. In the last paragraph he remarks that he could be “kinder, more generous, fiercer in cleaving to the good, true, and beautiful. I’ve been pondering something Saint John of the Cross wrote: ‘Where you find no love, put love, and you will find love.’ It could be worth a shot.”
Comment: Since Marc Barasch is a Buddhist, and since this book makes generous and sympathetic use of Christian examples, he gives us all a model of interreligious graciousness.
The book speaks of mirror neurons, which promote identical responses in the organism (it was found originally in monkeys), whether it experiences something happening to a fellow creature or to itself; and of oxytocin, which promotes affectionate caring behaviors. Chapter 2 tells of what the author discovered on his trip to meet with Frans de Waal at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Georgia. He observed and learned about a species of little-known, but amazingly empathetic apes called bonobos; they are affectionate, quick to relieve distress, prompt in extinguishing conflict, and generous in reconciling afterward. One tool-maker, Kanzi, can understand 2-3000 English words. In addition, we are given two stories about a famous chimp. As I read of this most highly developed of the bonabos, I found myself entertaining the thought that the nurture and training that Kanzi has received from birth may have enabled him to cross the line and become a primate human. And there are stories of other apes. “Washoe once leaped over a dangerous high-voltage fence to pull a newly arrived chimp from the water, risking her life for an individual she’d known only a few hours. And chimps fear and despise water. . . . Washoe, who had lost both her offspring as infants, reacted when a keeper told her that her own newborn had just died. Looking deep into the grieving woman’s eyes, Washoe signed, “Cry,” tracing on her own cheek the path a tear would take down a human’s (chimps don’t shed tears). Then Washoe signed, ‘Please Person Hug.’”
Comment: The book is realistic about the presence in apes, even bonobos, of other-than-empathetic behaviors; moreover, bonobos often use promiscuity to pacify conflict. I applaud the balance of information that the author gives. And like the author, I believe that the evidence of continuity between apes and humans is extensive and important. Unlike the author, I believe that understanding of human compassion requires an acknowledgement of moral reason, not just empathy, and of the spirit of God–call it buddha nature. These additions would make a very different book.
Chapter 3 considers selfless identification with other persons and raises a question of how real the difference is between self and other. First we hear of the author’s observations from shadowing the Dalai Lama during a very busy day, during which he tirelessly gave utterly focused, compassionate attention to every one of the many, many persons he met. A couple of the book’s many references to the golden rule appear, along with a word from Philo of Alexandria: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Next we learn of the empathy of highly gifted boy: “What you do is to forget everything else that is in your head, and then you make your mind into their mind.” Then come accounts of genetic abnormalities that make people hardly able empathize at all or make them prone to excessive empathy. Last the author tells his experience—shortly after cancer surgery, in post-operative trauma, barely able to cope, and yet at a conference where the participants found his scar and his condition repulsive and avoided him—when he met Brother David Steindl-Rast.
Brother David was coming down a path from the opposite direction, a gaunt man in a black-and-white habit, who somehow exuded calm. Perhaps touched by something he saw in my face, he paused, sat down on a low, rock wall, and gestured me over by patting a space next to him. We talked, or actually, I talked. He encouraged me to unload the whole dump truck of my woes—his steady gaze told me he could take it. He was the first person who didn’t flinch away.
He conveyed a few words of advice and comfort, something about an “unknown guidance system” that kicks in when you’re really lost—but mostly he shared my pain without trying to do anything about it. When he quietly told me, without a speck of dogma, that I shouldn’t assume that my suffering had no value, I never forgot it. I knew somehow that he had been there himself; that he had, in a sense, never left.
Chapter 4 tells of the author’s experience of a one-week retreat, organized by Buddhists, in which participants live on the street, with no money, homeless in Denver in February. They learn what is to walk until their feet hurt, to know where they can stay for how long and where they are unwelcome, and what it is to ask for handouts. The most dramatic story is about what happened to Tim, a young member of their group who had forgotten to bring his sleeping bag. One night the temperature dropped below freezing, and the group were huddled together for sleep, and Tim was shivering and anxious. In the morning he was fine: a street person they later identified as Jesus Martinez had silently, anonymously given his own sleeping bag, his most valuable possession, putting it over Tim and disappearing.
“Whenever catching sight of others, look at them with an open, loving heart.” Chapter 5 is about the power of seeing the other person with the Good Eye, loving, openly, without judgment. “One night Grandma Margaret [a nurse] was summoned to the obstetrics ward of her Arizona hospital. A Down syndrome child had just been born, unpredicted in those pre-amniocentesis days, and the distraught mother was threatening to kill herself rather than keep the baby. When Margaret saw the child, she made an impossible leap of faith. ‘I’ll take that baby home, she announced, and I’ll love her.’ True to her word, she raised a foster daughter who bloomed into a high-functioning young adult.”
Comment. Some readers will wonder about the people who care for Down syndrome children who do not become flourishing young adults.
A friend of mine, a psychologist, works at Arkansas’ infamous Tucker Max Prison. She’s will aware that most people look at her prisoner clients and see only dregs—“ugly toothless hulks,” as she puts it—but she claims she can see only “radiant bulbs with these big lampshades blocking the light. I know they’re supposed to be ‘untreatable psychopaths,’ but I feel like, Oh, take that fright-mask off!” She’s remarkably successful. Around her, tough nuts crack open; even wary, death-row guards have been known to cry.
“It’s like there’s this horribly thick suit of armor,” she explains, trying to make me see it through her eyes, “and I know someone’s trapped inside, so how do we get them out?” I ask her why she even bothers. “The joy!” she says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “Just the joy of being with people when they show up as they really are.”
Chapter 6, “Heart Science, Heart’s Mystery” is a thrillingly informative story of a trip to HeartMath, famous a research center in northern California, where the author met founder Doc Childre and a researcher whose name I’ve seen a few times, Rollin McCraty. Physiologically, heart’s 40,000 neurons enable the heart to have a mind of its own; its resonant state, associated with serenity and love, can affect other person’s EEG. And over time we can train our heart and emotional life to be loving and compassionate. The details await you.
There’s so much in these chapters that legitimately creates in the reader a momentum in the right direction that I, on balance, applaud the author’s achievement–and writing style! This chapter makes me want to read a lot more about the HeartMath research.
Chapter 7 tells of a man who donated one of his kidneys to a stranger. Compared to the old ordeal, a new operation makes it quick and easy. Reading the chapter, you want to rush out and do the same. (I’m planning to have a conversation with my urologist first–and then God.)
Chapter 8 deals with altruism. A student of Hindu spiritual teacher Neem Karoli Baba said, “What astounded me when I was around Maharaji wasn’t that he loved everybody. After all, he was a saint, and saints are supposed to love everybody. What astounded me was that when I was around him I loved everybody. It’s the kind of love that’s contagious.” The author asked an advanced Jewish teacher what would help us become more altruistic, and received this reply: “Just pray for grace. Pray for God to show you the way to do good. Pray sincerely, and he will reveal it to you.” The big question in this chapter: “Would you risk hiding a Jew from the Nazis?” Those who did nothing during the Holocaust reported later having felt helpless and isolated. But there is more to the picture. “Rescuers touched others, not just their fellow conspirators, the paper-forgers and the people-smugglers but the bakers who sometimes silently portioned out more than the due ration, the farmers who wordlessly sold them cheaper vegetables, the occasional bureaucrat who turned a blind eye. They were too few and too far between, but thousands took tiny risks to affirm their humanity—risks that, without the rescuers, they might not have taken at all.”
Comment: Here’s the wisdom that I appreciate in Pitirim Sorokin: not everyone will be a hero, but the rest of us can do a lot better than we normally do. (And the more you think your way into the shoes of the hero, the more you can identify with the truth of the insights from which that action flows.)
Chapter 9 is about forgiveness. President Jimmy Carter’s definition: “putting yourself in the position of the other person and wiping away any sort of resentment or antagonism you feel toward them.” Another autobiographical story gives yet more evidence how sincerely he has engaged on the journey of compassion. The centerpiece is a Tutsi from Rwanda who radiates forgiveness of Hutus who had engaged in genocidal slaughter of his people.
Comment: Obviously the author has made a tremendous effort over years to meet and speak with world-class persons on the compassion scale. To me this suggests a greater effort to do something at least remotely similar.
Chapter 10, “Loving the Monster,” moved me most among the many very-moving chapters. This one tells of an utterly horrible murder, and how the father of his murdered daughter reached out to the perpetrator, serving life in prison without possibility of parole. Bit by bit, more and more of the life story of the convict, Ivan Simpson comes into view. (And I don’t want to spoil the discovery completely, much of which hinges on the details uncovered about the person’s life, from before birth to immediately before the horrible deed–together with psychological insights about some of what occurred.) Slowly, slowly, the father and Ivan built a relationship, gained mutual understanding. And Ivan’s life has turned around. Barasch interviewed Simpson, and we have part of the conversation. He asked Ivan what he could possibly give back, and this is the reply.
“I have a chance to give a lot. I’m in a place where a lot of people are going through pressure, having flare-ups. I try to point out stuff to them, keep ‘em out of trouble, maybe just that day. I believe if each man just sat down and not dwell on his past but look over his life to see what he started, the envy and strife and how his attitude is making him now, it would humble him. I learned this: A soft answer to anybody’ll turn away wrath. Sometimes you can hear two people yelling at each other; tensions are building. If one of them answers in not a harsh way, the other’s going to stop. ‘Cause you gotta have wood to make a fire burn.
Suddenly I burst out laughing. I can’t help myself. Ivan Simpson has become a peacemaker. Silent Simpson, the men in the yard call him. Quiet Ivan. Ivan, the crackhead killer, is making this harsh world of murderers and madmen, within its razor-wire circumference, a better place to live. . . .
[Ivan continues.] “There’s a passage says be of good courage and wait on the Lord,” he says in his deliberate way. “I didn’t know whether it meant to wait on him, like, he’ll show up so don’t rush, or wait on him like a waiter or waitress. So I try to do both. I wait for him, and I try to serve him by helping.” But how could he help, in lifelong lockdown, with his faith at once puerile and profound? “I pray,” he says simply, “for inmates, for officers, for everybody. I try not to pray for myself. That goes back to the life I’ve taken. I know Miss Patricia [his victim] did touch a lot of lives. I believe if I ask for someone else, he’ll help them. And if I can get to see that, see it manifest a little, that’s good.”
I ask Ivan if he thinks about the future. He’s quiet for a minute. “I’m going to live out my natural life in prison, so I have to treat this as my home and do what I can to make my home a peaceful place. My future is to speak right or just walk right, try to be an example if I can. If I can. Encourage someone no matter where they at. That’s just how I look at it.”
Chapter 11 tells of a two-week gathering of thirty teenage Israeli and Palestinian girls, flown into rural New Jersey as part of the Building Bridges for Peace program put on by Seeking Common Ground. They sleep in on air mattresses in a large common room and are taken through carefully sequenced activities designed to facilitate their eventual bonding. This is the chapter that gets most explicit about the factors that block compassion and shows us the manifestations of deeply ingrained habits of antagonism. The writing gives hints along the way of the happy ending, which is nonetheless moving.
Chapter 12 tells of that period of time right after the September 11, 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center, when a social transformation burst forth, centered in St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Church in New York City.
Comment: It is common after community disasters for extraordinary levels of altruism to manifest for a period of time. One of the things about this book that I like is that the author repeatedly presents reductionist seemingly scientific explanations for the fine phenomena being described, and then moves on. A philosopher could analyze the errors of reductionism more clearly, and one of the good things about the fact that there is more to be said about these phenomena is that it makes more room for people to contribute. We need a chorus of voices to move in the right direction. Barasch is a leading voice in the chorus, and he will inspire others to continue the song.
Chapter 13 tells of two elk who came and slept next to a boy who had gotten lost and was falling asleep in snow country; of a talking parrot; and generally reminds us of our kinship with other life forms. A footnote has a quote from Alfie Kohn’s book, The Brighter Side of Human Nature: “What often seems to happen is that genuine, other-oriented empathy gives way after a moment to dwelling on one’s own experiences. One starts by feeling her joy, but this calls up a memory of the last time something unexpected and delightful happened to oneself, and soon the other’s reality has slid away. [Martin] Hoffman calls this “egoistic drift,” and the impact is that one’s capacity for empathy is a function not only of whether one can respond to others, but whether one can continue responding to others, persisting in the other-orientation.” Just recognizing myself in that lucid description was helpful to me.
Barasch’s conclusion and epilogue sounds notes of hope.
How do we nourish our love, compassion, and caring? What stories do we have to share? And how shall we live so that we have more stories to share to encourage hope? I ask myself these questions, too. Marc Barasch has helped me expand my appreciation of all life and deepen my compassionate realization of the brotherhood of man, the basis for the realization of the universal Fatherhood of God.
“Kids compassion” by Wonderlane (photo); Berkeley (art) – http://www.flickr.com/photos/wonderlane/4463698051/in/photostream/. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kids_compassion.jpg#/media/File:Kids_compassion.jpg