Field Notes on the Compassionate Life: A Search for the Soul of Kindness is the story of Marc Ian Barasch's journey to find both the origins and expressions of human compassion. He begins the book by defining compassion as “kindness without condition,” separating the concept from similar human responses such as empathy and sympathy. Hypothesizing that compassion might be essential to human evolution, he visits a bonobo ape research facility where these animals exhibit what can only be described as compassion for each other. Next, he explores human compassion through neuroscience, citing studies that identify “mirror” neurons as the site of empathy in the human brain. He further discusses studies that find neurons in the heart that affect emotions.
Looking for examples of compassion, Barasch visits people who have, with no thought of their own well-being, behaved altruistically. They include people who hid Jews from the Nazis as well as voluntary organ donators who give kidneys to strangers needing transplants. Barasch finds further potential for compassion in several programs designed to bring peace, one person at a time, to war-ravaged locations. As if the entire world were not wide enough for Barasch, he turns to the stars for his final thoughts: how will people convince extraterrestrials that humans are kindly, compassionate beings?
In the final analysis, Barasch reports that like writer Aldous Huxley, his journey has taught him that “it seems to come down mostly to just learning to be kinder.” Barasch has created a convincing case for compassion at all levels, examining along the way a wide sweep of science and philosophy.