By Richard Handler
Tough-Minded Compassion In good therapy, kindness is only the beginning
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. …