Early in his book, Marc Ian Barasch makes clear that he has no illusions about human behavior. He knows that even the most well-intentioned people fall prey to selfishness and apathy, and “there are days compassion seems as notional as a dusting of powdered sugar on a devil’s food cake.” But he can’t shake the idea that “a compassionate life is more fulfilling,” and he finds himself fascinated and inspired by people who exude empathy. Field Notes on the Compassionate Life chronicles his attempts to better understand these people who so powerfully embody the better side of human nature—and to see if there’s hope for more of us (including Barasch himself) to be more like them.
His “search for the soul of kindness” leads him across a slew of scientific discoveries into the nature of compassion and altruism. Some of this research will be familiar to readers of this magazine, whether it’s primatologist Frans de Waal’s studies of empathy in apes or psychologist Richard Davidson’s research linking meditation to heightened states of positive emotion. But Barasch has done all readers a service by covering so much of this research in a single volume. In just over 350 pages, he provides an engaging and very thorough overview of the tremendous strides scientists have made toward understanding the roots and the extent of human goodness.
Barasch draws on this science to help explain and interpret the behavior of some remarkable individuals. He structures the book around stories of people who astonish him with their displays of altruism and empathy. Some of these people, like the Dalai Lama, are well-known icons of compassion. But Barasch also encounters people like Fleet Maull, a convicted felon-turned-Buddhist social activist who leads “street retreats,” where people experience a week of homelessness to attune themselves to the plights of others. Barasch, a journalist by trade, goes on one of these retreats, and his account is one of the highlights of the book—an honest, detailed portrait of humanity at its best and worst.
Field Notes is most engrossing when Barasch brings us along on his quest not only to appreciate goodness but to live it—to face all of his (and our) moral and emotional shortcomings, and work to rise above them. He’s a likable and helpful guide on this journey, and though he doesn’t quite locate the “soul” of kindness, which would be akin to discovering the meaning of life, he should convince even the most cynical readers that there’s good reason to strive for a more compassionate world. Like all of us, Barasch is just trying to be a better person. His book shows that reaching this goal can be hard, but it is possible.