Open Book

Tough-Minded Compassion

In good therapy, kindness is only the beginning

Magazine Issue
March/April 2006
Tough-Minded Compassion

Field Notes on the Compassionate Life: A Search for the Soul of Kindness
By Marc Ian Barasch
Rodale. 356 pp. ISBN: 978-1-57954-711-0

It could be said that therapists are in the compassion business. Even strict Freudian psychoanalysts (those few who are left) and manualized cognitive types must employ a semblance of compassion to do their jobs. Other therapists must use compassion as a first-line tool. If they can’t “resonate with” their clients, their clients will soon disappear.

Compassion is the subject of this useful book by Marc Barasch, a writer and a former editor at Psychology Today, Natural Health, and the New Age Journal. He was a founding member of the Naropa University psychology department, as well as a documentary producer. Like so many writers in psychology with New-Age leanings, he’s a good Buddhist of Jewish descent-the nontheistic psychology of Buddhism attracts many post-Holocaust Jews. For him, as for many Buddhists, compassion is the quintessential human emotion. His book takes the form of a hunt for compassion, as his desert ancestors once hunted for God.

Before joining his quest, let’s get our definitions right, at least in Barasch’s terms. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines compassion as “pity inclining one to be helpful or merciful.” But the word “pity” is almost never used in this book-it’s not even in the index. For Barasch, compassion is a “resonating with” emotion. It’s more active than sympathy. He quotes a little homily from a nurse’s station: “Sympathy sees and says I’m sorry. Compassion feels and whispers, I’ll help.” This is an instructive distinction. Sympathy is passive. It feels for people, helplessly-like pity. Compassion is active: it aids, mobilizes, gives assistance.

Compassion is associated in Barasch’s mind with specific human traits and emotions: altruism (that “regard for others as the principle of action”) and kindness (“gentleness and friendliness, outwardly expressed”). Both require feeling and doing.

Barasch’s journey has two guideposts: the scientific and the spiritual. He wants to figure out compassion the way some people disassemble car engines so they can answer the eternal question, “How does it work?” But even more than that, he wants to understand what it means to be truly good-“not that cramped chiding moral-majority good. Not sticky sweet watch-your-insulin-level good. Just deep down unfailing good.”

From the viewpoint of science, he explores the question of whether compassion-at root the capacity to “suffer with”-is an evolutionary adaptation. The model for compassion, he says, is the mother-child relationship. It even comes with its own natural chemistry: oxytocin, the master hormone in mother-infant bonding.

According to Darwin, the root instinct for compassion is “mutual aid.” In fact, Darwin was more enamored of compassion than brute nature: in his Descent of Man, he mentions compassion 95 times, and “survival of the fittest” only twice. From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, this leads to the conclusion that, in human beings, good behavior has “evolved” as kind of a quid pro quo: I’ll be compassionate and kind to you and your kin so, one day, you’ll be kind and good to me and mine.

A prerequisite for compassion, though not the same thing, is empathy, which refers to the “inner participation in another’s thoughts and feelings.” Empathy, the new brain research tells us, depends partly upon “mirror neurons,” which enable us to “sense” what’s going on inside somebody else’s head, to “mirror” within ourselves the mind-state of another. Evolutionary psychologists say empathy is simply an instrument of survival, an evolved strategy for getting along in the world. Think of civil society as a code, based on mutual empathy: all those different shapes, sizes, and colors of people riding side by side on a bus, their manners and politeness serving as a badge of citizenship.

While compassion can certainly be described in Darwinian terms (any human quality can), Barasch’s point is that the more you look at those who exhibit compassion, the more the characteristic becomes a mystery that science can’t explain. He’s fascinated by the people who make no sense, in Darwinian terms-people who do things that no one who really was trying to maximize his genetic advantage would do. These are the extraordinary 1.5 per cent of the population, whom Barasch calls “givers.”

Givers include the people who rescued and hid Jews during the Holocaust, those whom Jews call “righteous gentiles.” By Darwinian standards, their acts are insane. The Nazis would have killed them and their families, if what they were doing had been discovered. But, remarkably, they all say simply that they “had to do it.” And that it was “nothing special.” While the whole continent of Europe assented in the murder of Jews (and millions of others), these people risked their families because they felt they had to. Even Richard Dawkins, the great proponent of the Darwinian “selfish gene,” admits that he has no explanation for such acts of altruism and sacrifice that could result in self-destruction.

Barasch profiles another group of contemporary givers who defy the Darwinian script: people who donate their kidneys to complete strangers. Think about it. You have two kidneys, sure. But one might fail, or a relative might need one someday. And yet, these people don’t even consider such natural and acceptable sentiments. They either think that it’s “no big deal”-or they’re elated by their giving (and often both).

Barasch profiles one fellow, Harold Mintz, who’s both a saint and the book’s comic relief. He’s a “big sweet galoot,” a guy who smiles and punches your arm, buddy style, and tells “knock-knock” jokes to cheer you up when you’re under stress. He works as a sales vice president, and infuses both his business and his altruism with infectious enthusiasm. He gave away a kidney anonymously to an Ethiopian refugee (whom he later met), and now regularly goes on speaking engagements, trying to “sell” others on doing it.

When you follow his story, you can trace a path that led to his giving: his father’s early death from cancer, which led to his epiphany about the medical needs of others. But lots of people have these insights and don’t donate their kidneys to strangers. You could say he got “giver’s high” from donating his kidney, and still gets it when he speaks to groups. But altruistic runner’s high doesn’t fully explain his act; neither does sheer sales ego. When pressed, even great sales reps, with big blustery egos and hearts, don’t give away their organs to total strangers, unless they die first.

Even more incomprehensible than Mintz is Hector, who forgave (and befriended!) the man who raped and murdered his own daughter. This Barasch calls “loving the monster.” It’s the stuff of genuine saints.

Ivan Simpson, the rapist-murderer, is one of those who’d fallen into “the ranks of the possessed.” Addicted to crack, he killed under what psychiatrists called “a command hallucination.” Hector is a Quaker, but no Quaker can be expected to do what he did: court, befriend, and forgive the man who killed his child. Even the killer Simpson was “baffled.”

Not that Hector didn’t struggle: he admits that he hated Simpson’s guts at first. But he prayed for the strength to give up his “anger, jealousy, lies and pride.” So Hector began writing, then visiting, this “monster.” Soon a relationship developed and he started to “care deeply for a man struggling in the grip of damnation.” He still puzzles over his own behavior, though. “What kind of strange bird am I?” he asks himself.

In this case, the monster repented, so the story has a happy ending (if you will). Now, forgiveness isn’t necessarily mysterious. Even religious people know that there are perfectly good, selfish reasons for forgiving the sinner-maintaining implacable hatred is a waste of time, and only hurts you. That’s fine when the guy you’re forgiving is the boss who fired you. But the murderer of your child?! Some parents might even argue that Simpson isn’t the only one in the throes of a command hallucination.

After offering a range of insights on the nature of compassion, Barasch lets us down at the end of the book; and his readers begin to suffer from clich’ fatigue. His penultimate chapter is a mushy letter to “all his relations”-human and otherwise-in which he speculates on whether all living things respond invisibly to the “suffering and joy, hatred and love that surround them.” As he himself admits, this attempt to draw everything into a kind of great chain of connection through universal love can come across a bit “soft and gooey.”

I prefer a more tough-minded version of compassion, rather than some sentimental vision of a cloying, benign universe in which we’re all “connected.” For me, compassion may be most compellingly observed in those difficult, demanding people who don’t seem to need our admiration or affirmation. Think of that snappish saint Mother Theresa, who was so busy helping the poor of Calcutta she had no time to soothe the egos of her emotionally yearning, Western visitors. She preferred to give them a broom and put them to work.

Troubled clients don’t need to hear homilies on the oneness of the universe. Anyway, we aren’t “all one,” but lots of ones, twos, and threes struggling with our own lives. When people go to a therapist, they aren’t looking for cosmic solutions; it isn’t the human family that needs fixing, just the one they happen to belong to. And to help mend these problems, therapists need to call on a compassion that’s both kind and disciplined.

We don’t want therapists only to help their clients adapt to a harsh, Darwinian world (although sometimes that, too, may be necessary). Nor can we expect therapists to be as selfless as an anonymous kidney donor. But in between the reality principle and the counsels of perfection, therapists need all the skill, tact, and, yes, wisdom they can muster. That’s a hard enough job for anybody, Mother Theresa included.

Richard Handler

Richard Handler is a radio producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Canada.