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Thursday, Sept. 1, 2005 01:41 am

Especially people who care about strangers

How to search for "the soul of kindness"

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Field Notes on the Compassionate Life: A Search for the Soul of Kindness By Marc Ian Barasch, Rodale Books, 2005, 352 pages, $24.95.

Call me cantankerous, but I didn’t want to like Field Notes on the Compassionate Life. Sure that in the background I was hearing strains from the ’60s musical Hair, I wondered, “How can publishers  be so cruel?” Do we really need a how-to book about searching for “the soul of kindness”? It was easy to say no.

But then I started reading. Author Marc Ian Barasch did not have me at hello, but by the third chapter I was more than curious. It says something about our current state of collective caring that we’ve added compassion to the lexicon of words to be wary (weary?) of. If I learned nothing else from this fine book, I learned that compassion is not  conservative. Treating others as we would be treated? Jesus, what a radical idea!

Certain writers can make any topic sing, and clearly Barasch is part of that choir. His subject could easily have wandered down the path of preaching to the choir, but he is too good a writer to let that happen. He may be the former editor-in-chief of New Age Living , but there are no fuzzy edges here. His “field notes” are not sermons but tales of true people (and animals) who have chosen the road less traveled and, in doing so, found their way. If this were a litany of saints, we’d have nothing to learn. But if a someone like you or me can forgive the person who murdered his daughter, maybe there is a lesson or two we’ve yet to be taught.

Television networks now teach us how to build boats that won’t sink or bake soufflés that won’t fall. Where on the remote do we click to get to the empathy channel? In his famous letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul catalogs what love is and isn’t. Barasch would add that love is not passive, that the road to a compassionate heart may be rougher than the road to Damascus. It’s one thing to volunteer at the local soup kitchen and another to do a “street retreat,” living homeless for a time, part of the class many of us have chosen to despise. All the talk about walking in someone else’s shoes takes on new meaning when there are holes in the soles and the thermometer dips below freezing.

It can be a jungle out there, so who would think we might learn about the better part of our nature from a chimpanzee? Meet the “pygmy chimps,” Pan paniscus . Studies of their behavior may prove that conciliation rather than competitiveness is the “central organizing principle of human evolution.” Talk about intelligent design!

Field Notes on the Compassionate Life is rich with such stories, and it enriches its readers. It makes us feel good. But what it does even better is help us realize that it’s not enough to feel good. We need to do some good in the world. “Do-gooder” shouldn’t be an epithet. Maybe James Brown had it wrong. Maybe it should be “I do good. I knew that I could.” Maybe you could start with a needing friend.

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