Books On My Shelf: Fieldnotes on the Compassionate Life

November 5, 2012
Discover how compassion bridges the gap between friend and foe, between Democrat and Republican, between “our team” and “their team.”


Books on my shelfI am starting a feature on the blog called “Books on My Shelf.” Every Monday morning, I will give you excerpts and recommendations for books I have enjoyed very much. Some are serious, others light reading. Some are still in print, others not so but still worth getting from the library. Or, they can be ideas to add to your holiday shopping list.
If you buy these books using the links in the post, you can help support the upkeep of the Support4Change website and blog. Even if you aren’t planning on buying them, I still think you will enjoy reading the excerpts and my thoughts on these excellent books.


Fieldnotes on the Compassionate LifeToday is the day before the elections. Tomorrow, approximately half the country will be happy with the results, and half will be disappointed. Though everyone will be glad the political ads are going to be over.

If your side wins, you may not give much thought to the feelings of those who lost. If your side loses, you may not have many happy feelings for those who won.

What if there were a different way to view the people with whom you disagree?

Here are two excerpts from Field Notes on the Compassionate Life: A Search for the Soul of Kindness by Marc Ian Barasch. This approach to life is one that we would all do well to take to heart.

THE GOOD EYE: Seeing the Best in Another Person Even When It’s Not Obvious

Life offers up its own daily catechism, even if it’s just seeing people in a little better light. Why not just resolve to give everyone the benefit of the doubt? “If we treat people as they ought to be,” said Goethe, almost nailing it, “we help them become what they are capable of becoming.” Or more to the point: Treat them as they already are, if we but had the Good Eye to see it.

Once, at a conference, I noticed a man striding toward me, his face alight. He seemed really happy to see me, but I didn’t have a clue who he was. When he got closer, he pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose, peered at my face, looked down at my nametag, took a step back.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, embarrassed. “You looked just like a friend I haven’t seen for years. You even have the same first name … so when someone pointed you out. . .” He trailed off; the effusive warmth seeped away. I told him it was fine. His Good Eye had enveloped me in a gaze of anticipatory delight that made me feel golden. We wound up having lunch. He told me about his research (which coincidentally dovetailed with my own); he talked about the happiness and sorrows of raising a young daughter with multiple sclerosis (for everyone is fighting a great battle). We still stay in touch.

Maybe we should all take off our glasses and hope for more cases of mistaken identity. For that matter, it might be unmistaken. Why not welcome everyone as some long-lost cousin, sprung from our fifty-thousand-African mother, bumping into each other again after a year separation. Wonderful to see you after all this time — you look great!

A friend of mine, a psychologist, works as a counselor to the obdurate, lethal men at Arkansas ‘s infamous Tucker Max prison. She’s well aware that most people look at her clients and see only dregs — “ugly toothless hulks,” as she puts it — but she claims she can only see “radiant bulbs with these big lampshades blocking the light. I know they’re supposed to be ‘untreatable psychopaths,’ but I feel like, Oh, take that fright-mask off! It could come off in two seconds!” It sounds absurd, but she’s remarkably successful. In her presence, the toughest nuts crack wide-open; even their wary, death-row warders let down their guard and cry. She has an x-ray vision that goes straight to the human core.

“It’s like there’s this horribly thick suit of armor,” she explains, trying to make me see it through her eyes, “and I know someone’s trapped inside, so how do we get them out?” I ask her why she even bothers. “The joy!” she says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “Just the joy of being with people when they show up as they really are.”

If we can’t see who people really are, say possessors of the Good Eye, it’s just our ordinary eye playing tricks on us, focusing on differences and defects, blind to deeper connection. If we mistake each other for strangers, it’s just blurry vision. The Good Eye is the corrective to Einstein’s “optical delusion of consciousness.” As with the rearview mirror that cautions Objects May Be Closer Than They Appear, we might be closer, much closer, than we think.

Rooting for the Winners if You Lost and the Losers if You Won

I have a wildly successful acquaintance next to whose perfectly pillowed existence mine seems a lumpy mattress. I’ve seen him on magazine covers, a self-satisfied, cock-of-the-walk, air-brushed grin on his face. Even worse, he’s in my field, though he does ever so much better (sell-out!). I’ve been training myself, as an antidote to a fulminating case of green-eye, that whenever I feel that little twitch of envy, I wish for more bluebirds of happiness to come sit on his eaves. “Don’t you mean,” asks a cynical friend, “come shit on his sleeves?” But the fact is, my good wishes provide an unexpected sense of relief. It’s an unknotting, expansive feeling, as if what’s his and what’s mine suddenly, metaphysically, belong to both of us and to neither. I recently came across a line from Yoko Ono: “Transform jealousy to admiration / And what you admire / Will become part of your life.” Maybe she did break up the Beatles, but I think she’s onto something.

Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself. Root for the other team. Visualize someone who makes you envious — someone who squats smug as a toad in what is surely your rightful place in the world. Think of them in all their irritating splendor, enjoying the perks and accolades you no doubt deserve. Then … wish sincerely that they get even more goodies.

Isn’t this the mortal sin of “low self-esteem”? Well, not exactly; it’s more like a metaphysical jujitsu. In rooting for someone else’s happiness, we tune to a different wavelength. We feel more beneficent, less deprived, more capable of giving. The focus on another person’s satisfaction becomes a lodestone that paradoxically draws us closer to our own. (Isn’t most envy just our own potential disowned? We are jealous of what we ourselves might become.) Seeing the world through another’s eyes (you in me, me in you) makes it feel there’s at least twice as much to go around; not more money or fame or square footage, but what underlies the whole pursuit: more love.

Look at what this shift in attitude might do to the country. We might actually come together and accomplish something!

Excerpt reprinted with permission
Copyright © 2005 Marc Ian Barasch
For more information, visit Marc Ian Barasch is the author of several award-winning books. His recent book, Healing Dreams was hailed by the Washington Post as “lucid, courageous, trailblazing.” His other books include the award-winning classic The Healing Path and the national bestseller Remarkable Recovery: What Extraordinary Healings Tell Us About Getting Well and Staying Well He is a former editor at Psychology Today, Natural Health, and New Age Journal (which won a National Magazine Award under his tenure). He was a founding member of the Naropa University psychology department and he is an Emmy Award-nominated documentary film producer and writer whose work has been broadcast worldwide. He lives in the Colorado Rockies.

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Here are a some related posts from this blog, and articles from the Support4Change website:


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