Searching for the Heart of Compassion

Marc Ian Barasch searches our society for compassion in action, compassionate people, and ways to find the compassion inside himself.

Marc Ian Barasch
1 May 2005
Photo by Evan Kirby.

I am thankful that thorns have roses.
—Alphonse Karr

Every now and then, I’ll meet an escapee, someone who has broken free of self-centeredness and lit out for the territory of compassion. You’ve met them, too, those people who seem to emit a steady stream of, for want of a better word, love-vibes. As soon as you come within range, you feel embraced, accepted for who you are. For those of us who suspect that you rarely get something for nothing, such geniality can be discomfiting: They don’t even know me. It’s just generic cornflakes. But it feels so good to be around them. They stand there, radiating photons of goodwill, and despite yourself, you beam back, and the world, in a twinkling, changes.

I appreciate these compassion-mongers, even marvel at them. I rarely think that I could be like them. Sure, I’ve tried to live a benign life, putting my shoulder to the wheel for peace, justice and Mother Earth (mostly churning out words on a page, bouncing signals off the satellites). I doubt that it’s made me much less egotistical (maybe a bit more so). I still have that too-cool objectivity that can suck away my sympathies like an outgoing tide.

But I want to be good. Not that cramped, chiding Moral Majority good (I’ll keep my minority status, thanks). Not sticky-sweet, watch-your-insulin-level good. Just deep-down, unfailingly kind. The fact that I’m not, when the world could use so much more kindness, frankly vexes my spirit.

Oh, I’m a nice enough guy. Like most people, I adore my offspring, even when they drive me crazy; love my parents, despite the corkscrew of childhood; dote on my siblings (though there is that scrapbook of old slights); treasure my friends (even if they sometimes let me down). Conventional wisdom wouldn’t fault me for saving the best stuff for my nearest and dearest and giving the rest of humanity the leftovers.

Thus it is, say the sages, that the harvest of kindness—of kindredness—is winnowed down to a precious few grains. For at the center of all spiritual traditions is the beacon of a truly radical proposal: Open your heart to everybody. Everybody.

What is compassion, that x-factor that every faith (the founders, if not the followers) exalts as a supreme virtue? When the Dalai Lama says, “My only religion is kindness,” and the Pope calls for a “civilization of love,” it can’t be just mealy-mouthed piety. Kindness and love are powers unto themselves, able to transmute even the most relentless enmity. Nelson Mandela once remarked he befriended his jailers, those grim, khaki-clad overseers of his decades of hard labor in a limestone quarry, by “exploiting their good qualities.” Asked if he believed all people were kind at their core, he responded, “There is no doubt whatsoever, provided you are able to arouse their inherent goodness.” If that sounds like wishful thinking, well, he actually did it.

When I was in my twenties, my Buddhist teacher tricked me into taking a vow of universal compassion. Using some spiritual sleight-of-hand I’ve yet to unravel, he made it seem I could aspire to a tender concern for everybody, even putting their welfare before my own.

Fat chance, I’d thought. But in his wily way, he had framed this vow—the bodhisattva’s promise to live for others—as a case of enlightened self-interest. It was not, he told me, a matter of wearing a one-size-fits-all hair shirt. I was taking the vow for my own good. It would give me some leverage to pry loose, finger by finger, the claustrophobic monkey-grip of ego; give the heart a little breathing room. By treating others generously, I might find them responding in kind. I felt I was being made privy to an ancient secret: To attain your own human potential, be mindful of everyone else’s.

At some point in my vow ceremony, a deceptively casual affair held in a rocky field, it had felt as if my vision suddenly cleared. I’d glimpsed, like a sky swept clean of clouds, everyone’s innate okayness. Years later, I still marveled at the spiritual chutzpah of the liturgy: However innumerable are beings, I vow to save them all. It was vintage Buddhist bravado—a pledge to empty all the world’s oceans using only an eyedropper. Hardly knowing what I was doing, I had planted myself in a millennia-old tradition that claims you can love all without preconditions, exclusionary clauses or bottom lines; that says life isn’t quid pro quo, but quid pro bono.

To my surprise, the vow hadn’t made me feel obligated, but liberated from my own suffocating strictures, from the narrowness of my concerns. It was as if I’d been waiting for a signal, a green light to step onto the crosswalk to the opposite curb; some goad to be compassionate not out of blind craving for virtue, but because it seemed the only genuinely interesting thing to do with my life.

Just forming the intention to make myself useful felt salutary, like some fast-acting antivenin to my snakebit business-as-usual. I had assumed life was about magnifying myself (for the greater good, of course), but now that seemed like the wrong end of the telescope: It made everyone else look small. I soon took a job running a residential therapeutic community in exchange for room and board, surprised at my ability to care for the walking wounded. I stopped thinking so much about how others had let me down, broken my heart, failed to anticipate my needs or take my oh-so-unique sensitivities into account. I began striving to see—and even nourish—other people’s possibilities, receiving in return those surprise concoctions that the human spirit dishes out when it feels accepted and at its ease.

But there came a point on my journey when I’d stumbled badly and fell far: a dire illness, an interminable recovery, penury, loneliness, full-on despair. Friends clucked in sympathy but stepped gingerly over the body. Family didn’t do much better. I had a soul-curdling realization: the people you love (and who ostensibly love you) may not be there when you need them most. I got through it—the kindness of strangers and all—but I was soon back to squinting at people through my cool fisheye, seeing their preening vanity, their intellectual shortfalls, their ethical squishiness. It took time until I realized such shortsightedness takes a toll—let alone that there was anything I could do about it.

Finding my way back to meditation helped. Nothing like getting a good, long look at myself (and funny how much I looked like everyone else). I noticed how often my social trade-offs were more about getting than giving; how many of my thoughts revolved in geosynchronous orbit around Planet Numero Uno. Inner work is a warts-and-all proposition; it gets harder to kid yourself. Still, my teacher had insisted one thing was certain: despite seeing all the ego’s pitfalls and pratfalls, real bodhisattvas make friends with themselves. Everyone, he said, possessed some worth past quantifying or qualifying, some value beyond judgment or fine-tuning—and that included oneself.

To love our neighbor as ourselves, after all, is the great injunction of every religion. But what does loving yourself mean? It’s one thing to say it; another to know it in your bones. Do I talk to the mirror, whispering sweet nothings? tenderly imagine a little homunculus inside me and pet it, tickle it, scratch it behind the ears? The spiritual consensus seems to be that it’s like learning to love anyone: you start by getting to know them. The side-benefit to this is that to know yourself is also to know the person sitting next to you and the one halfway around the world. “Read thyself,” wrote philosopher Thomas Hobbes. “Whosoever looketh into himself…shall know what are the thoughts and passions of other men.”

Still, having looketh’d into myself, I can’t say I loveth all I see. I have read myself, and there in oversize type it says: petty, suspicious, greedy, vain, jealous, lazy, stingy, dull (and that’s just on the page; there’s more between the lines). That I also reckon myself to be magnanimous, conscientious, loyal, thrifty, brave and intermittently humble is beside the point. It’s not enough to offset scourging self-judgment with a roll-call of compensating pluses. We have to take ourselves (and each other) whole. The Dalai Lama points out that the Tibetan term for compassion, tsewa, generally means love of others, but “one can have that feeling toward oneself as well. It is a state of mind where you extend how you relate to yourself toward others.” If it’s true that what goes around comes around, compassion is about nothing if not love’s tendency to circulate.

And radiate. Alexander Pope (poet of the “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind”) envisioned compassion as a series of concentric circles rippling outward:

… Self-love but serves the virtuous mind to wake,
As the small pebble stirs the peaceful lake;
… Friend, parent, neighbor, first it will embrace;
His country next; and next all human race.

It sounds great. It is great. But for many of us, there’s a nagging doubt that this whole compassion routine could edge into self-effacement—into loving others instead of ourselves, giving away the store until our shelves are bare. The usual formula is first to stockpile some extra self-esteem—then you can afford to be generous. That isn’t quite how the nineteenth-century religious philosopher Soren Kierkegaard saw it. The command to love thy neighbor, he wrote, had but one purpose: “as with a pick, [to] wrench open the lock of self-love and wrest it away from a person.” (He said it approvingly, but…oh, great, now compassion will burglarize us.) What about looking out for number one? Isn’t it prudent to follow that flight attendant’s advisory: First place the mask over your own nose and mouth, tightening the straps to begin the flow of oxygen? We’re of no use to anyone if we’re passed out in our seat from hypoxia.

It’s a hard balance to strike. If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I? There is a growing sense in our society, left, right and center, that the balance has woozily tipped; that our obsession with seamless self-contentment (“What I love about Subway is it’s all about me!”) has occluded our ability to love each other. Our cultural default setting has become “get your own needs met.” Our psychosocial mean temperature, suggested one recent article, is “people-friendly narcissism.” Our therapeutic model focuses so much on strengthening the ego-self that it omits what some dissident psychologists call the self-inrelation. One group of mostly female psychologists has proposed “openness to mutual influence” as a more reliable barometer of mental health than self-esteem.

But self-esteem is our all-purpose buzzword, a stock phrase in therapists’ offices, corporate training modules, even elementary school curricula. This is fine on the face of it: After all, what’s the alternative— self-loathing? Psychologist Abraham Maslow coined the term itself in 1940 after observing a monkey colony in a Madison, Wisconsin, zoo. He was fascinated by the cockiness of the troupe’s dominant alphas and the social benefits they accrued, so reminiscent of socially successful people. His concept of self-esteem, then, had its origin not as simple self-affirmation, but as the alpha’s great cry of triumphal self-love: I Am Somebody—and You’re Not. (Maslow’s first stab at a terminology was “dominance-feeling.”) This self-esteem was more akin to that sense of self that made Sinatra sing about how swell it was to be king of the hill.

What Maslow failed to stress was the social dimension. Even in a primate colony—especially so—no ape is an island: Modern primatologists point out that an alpha animal, contrary to its reputation as solitary lord of all it surveys, is thickly enmeshed in a social webbing, dependent on the reciprocities of group life. Maslow’s paragon of the “self-actualized” person (“authentic, individuated, productive,” with “a surprising amount of detachment from people in general”) begins to sound less like a social creature than a self-pollinating flower.

Taking potshots at Maslow may be a little unfair. At a time when psychology was obsessed with what goes wrong in the psyche, Maslow championed the things that go right. He was an exuberant advocate of human potential when most shrinks spent their fifty- minute hours chronicling pathology. And he did posit that self-actualization would inevitably lead to responsibility for others. But his emphasis on personal growth as the be-all helped spawn a national cottage industry devoted to building a better me, some enhanced self- to-the-tenth-power with its full entitlement of psychospiritual fabulousness. Not such an awful idea, I suppose, but as the song goes, Is that all there is?

I dropped in on a human potential workshop recently. Plenty of talk about self-empowerment and self-realization, self-efficacy and peak performance, but compassion didn’t rate a second billing on the marquee. It made me wonder what sort of selfhood we’re seeking: the self that “gets its needs met” but is never fufilled? Or the self that abundantly gives yet is never emptied? Instead of self-discovery, what about other-discovery, our real terra incognita?

I wonder, too (as a pragmatic question, not a moral one), if this pedal-to-the-metal pursuit of happiness really does make us any happier, or if we have the whole thing backwards. “The American way is to first feel good about yourself, and then feel good about others,” notes the Benedictine monk Thomas Keating. “But spiritual traditions say it’s the other way around—that you develop a sense of goodness by giving of yourself.”

I’ve been an Audrey Hepburn fan since I was a boy with my first major movie-star crush, all the more when I discovered that the adorable, to-die-for gamine of Breakfast at Tiffany’s was also a great humanitarian. I once came across a lost nugget of her philosophy while waiting in the dentist’s office. A fashion magazine had asked her for her beauty tips, and she’d written back:

For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.
For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.
For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.
For poise, walk with the knowledge you never walk alone.
If you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of each of your arms.

This homily, a sort of St. Francis Prayer for the Mafbelline Set, is a graceful rebuttal to the fetish of self- improvement. Instead of being all about me, it’s about us; instead of getting and having, it’s about giving and then giving some more. St. Francis himself went beyond mere charity. The son of a rich clothier, he gave up wealth and privilege to dress in rags and hang out with lepers. This was taking kindness to an extreme few of us would find attainable, let alone remotely appealing. But compassion has a certain down-and-dirty quality and a more than casual familiarity with the soul’s darker, draftier labyrinths.

At its root meaning of “to suffer with,” compassion challenges our tendency to flinch away from life’s too-tender parts. I know this much: when I acknowledge my own pain, I am much less squeamish about drawing nearer to yours. I seem to acquire my compassion piecemeal, hurt by hurt. After a bad sprain and time spent on crutches, I became more sympathetic to the locomotion-impaired—the lame and the wheelchair-bound, those who hobbled on canes and walkers.

Perhaps Thomas Aquinas was not so far off when he claimed, “No one becomes compassionate unless he suffers.” I take this less as a mandate for medieval masochism than an indecorous call to embrace our own authentic experience. If we’re not at home with the depth of our feelings, we’re likely to skirt the deep feelings of others. Do we love ourselves/others only when we/they are feeling fine? (Or as a rural proverb has it, “Do you only care about your cow when it’s giving you milk?”) I’ve become suspicious of the unblemished life. Maybe the heart must be broken, like a child’s prize honeycomb, for the real sweetness to come out. Although something inside us yearns to walk on air, never touching the ground, compassion brings us down to earth. It has been likened to the lotus, whose exquisite, fragrant blossom grows out of the muck and mire.

The Buddha, the jewel in the lotus himself, didn’t start out in the mud. He was raised like a hothouse flower, living the cosseted life of a pampered young prince. His royal parents, fearing a prophecy that he would grow up to become a spiritual teacher instead of a king, confined him within high castle walls, surrounded by every luxury, in a kind of Hindu 90210. The lame, the sick and the down-and-out were banished from sight. It wasn’t that his parents were afraid their son would be shocked by the sight of suffering (after all, he was to be a battle-hardened feudal monarch), but that he would respond to it. They were afraid, in other words, that their son might become compassionate.

One day the prince secretly ventured outside. He stumbled first upon a diseased beggar, then a dead man. The walls that had separated him from the world-as-it-is crumbled. Indeed, the castle might be thought of as a sort of metaphorical ego-structure: Don’t we often try to secure happiness by fortifying ourselves against imperfection? When the Buddha proclaimed his first noble truth, dukkha (“dissatisfactoriness”), he was pointing to the dissatisfaction of this ego-driven existence. A traditional image from the Sanskrit is an oxcart wheel that wobbles because its axle is out of kilter: To be self-centered is to be off-center from life itself. In the end, the Buddha’s enlightenment was to accept everything and everyone as they are; to sit down, as it were, for the full meal, and stop trying to eat around the broccoli.

Though his teachings acquired an aura of detachment in the Western mind (my own included), the image of some solitary quest for higher consciousness misses the point. When I first took my vows and embarked on the Path, I assumed that after X years of diligent meditation, I’d be a wise man with a small secret smile, wafting clear and calm through my own inner space, in some permanent altered state. Loving-kindness would be a spin-off technology from my private moon shot, like Tang or Teflon. But after some time spent trying to attain escape velocity, I noticed that most spiritual teachings regard compassion as the main event—the path to enlightenment, the way to slice through self-deception, the means and the motive to relinquish small thoughts for Big Mind. “Spiritual practice is not just about feeling peaceful and happy,” a Buddhist lama once told me, “but being willing to give up your own comfort to help someone else. Unless there’s some sacrifice for others, it’s just meditation by remote control!”

I recently saw a film about a morose, beaten-down man whose job in a Las Vegas casino was to bring gamblers calamitous bad luck. Known in the trade as a “cooler,” when he drew near the dice became frigid, the cards grew a layer of hoarfrost and the queen of hearts wept icy tears. But then he fell in love, and the world turned topsy-turvy. Everywhere he went, slot machines that had spit lemons now pealed with ecstatic jackpots, the dice were too red-hot to handle and baccarat tables practically sprouted crocuses. Even murderous goons and heartless goombahs were stirred to noble deeds. It was a wonderful evocation of that love which flouts the law of averages, beats the house odds, and finally breaks the bank.

I have a few friends who embody this brand of beneficent love some researchers refer to as “generativity.” I’d first gotten to know Alicia and Paul (not their real names) when I was teetering at the edge of a private cliffhanger. They’d heard I was hurting, and though they barely knew me, they’d shown up one day with a check that pulled me back from the brink. No strings, they’d assured me as I stammered my thanks. I didn’t have to do good with it, reciprocate in any way tangible or intangible, or even, they joked, have dinner with them. Just be, they said. It wasn’t just the sum, several months’ food and rent, that startled me, but the clear sense I got of the givers’ unencumbered hearts.

Over the years, we’ve become close friends. Alicia and Paul live on a hilltop bordered by redwood forest with their three kids, a cockatoo, an ancient desert tortoise, a once-feral cat, a snake and a pet white rat, all of whom gather around their large breakfast table each morning and seem to get along famously. The family is both well-off and deeply well-intentioned. They save swatches of rainforest; they build schools and teach in them; they take political refugees into their home; they plant community gardens, digging in the dirt. The last time I saw her, Alicia had just received her massage certification so she could give dying hospice patients the tenderness of her touch.

I sat in their kitchen one recent morning, looking out on a vista that was almost absurdly breathtaking: clement, mist-shrouded valleys undulating like bumps in a green carpet rolling up to the edge of a silver sea. Paul wandered in for breakfast. Soon, so did a pet rooster, its spurs clicking regally over the ochre tiles until, abandoning all dignity, it leaped onto his lap. “It’s spooky,” he said. “Even our animals are nice.” He wasn’t bragging, just bemused. With his straw-blond hair and a ruddy, open face, Paul’s surfer- dude placidity yields only occasional glimpses of the shrewd businessman who secured the family’s fortunes. He clearly adores his kids, who are all stalwart, funny and, for tweeners, preternaturally considerate. He doesn’t see himself as particularly compassionate, he tells me, just lucky—lucky to have made enough money to be able to give some away; lucky to have met his wife.

He credits Alicia for giving him the compassion 411. “Philanthropy’s not that hard. Learning how to be kind to people—that’s more elusive. Alicia’s sort of a genius in that department.”

I can attest to it. She makes you feel so favored—as if you’d done something extraordinary by simply existing—that you can’t help but osmose a little of whatever she has and try to pass it along. Alicia, I’d always assumed, was one of those from-the-cradle love-bugs, born with some extra endowment of solar warmth.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” she says. If anything, she insists, she was “born sad, not sweet,” an anxious, self-enclosed kid. It was her mother, a “kind of saintly” woman with an eighth-grade education, who got through her shell. “She flat-out taught me compassion. She told me that life’s greatest joy was to ‘pull the beauty out of people,’ because that makes your life beautiful, too. She was rock-solid in her devotion to other people. She’d be there for that super-annoying person no one else wanted to be around, take care of the one who’d landed in the biggest mess. She adopted every single fuck-up in my family, and a fair number of passing strangers.” At age eighty-five, her mother still corresponds weekly with dozens of people in varying degrees of muddle and distress, people who, Alicia says, “count on her letters to help them hold on.”

“I’m not at all like her,” Alicia claims. “I’m much more critical of people. Mom kept saying the secret was just to take a genuine interest in others—just ask them questions, want to know how they are, really. I’d try that and it would feel good, so I’d do it some more. Step by step, I got to see how wonderful that sensation is of serving others.” Alicia also credits her kids (“They taught me how to nurture—but that’s nothing unusual, right?”), a few books and sundry gurus. But she says it wasn’t until she met Tommy that it all came together.

He had dropped by one day to visit a friend who was doing some construction on their house. Tommy had been told he had less than a year to live: AIDS. He had no money. No place to stay. “Well, it just seemed so obvious,” says Alicia. “Not just to say, Gee, I’m so sorry, good luck; but duh! you can stay here’.’ Alicia and her family and a group of friends agreed to divide up the tasks. “I assigned myself to care for him physically, give him massages, that kind of thing. And I found I just loved it. When you see the suffering a person’s enduring, there’s no way you can’t respond. It takes you beyond yourself. Suddenly all those judgments you’d make if you just met them at a party evaporate. You’re stripped down to two people doing their best to partake of this mystery.”

Tommy had been walking with a cane when they first met him. Six months later, he was a quadriplegic. “But god, was he fun! He had this sparkly, devilish, bad-boy quality. Even when he was really sick, he’d want to go down to Baja and throw some big soiree, so we’d organize this whole elaborate caravan of his friends and our friends and IVs and wheelchairs and just do it. You think you’ve loved before, but this kind of thing opens your heart a thousand times. Tommy seemed to get more and more transparent the closer he got to death, and it enfolded you. I was with him when he died, when that transparency just turned into light.” Her weekly hospice work grew out of that experience. Alicia at fifty still has that lean, blonde, freckled California-girl look, her shoulders tan and muscular from paddling in the surf. It’s easy to imagine her large, strong hands kneading the failing flesh and comforting the moribund. But aren’t there times, I press her, when you wonder why you’re putting yourself through this; when you think of other things you could be doing—times you feel repulsed?

“I would have thought so,” she says. “But the worse it got, somehow the more I felt attracted. After all the surgeries, the bodies look like battlefields. You feel the loneliness of that person whose skin is falling off, who has tubes coming in and out of everywhere. And still, behind this war-torn shell, you feel the incredible strength of humanity. It may sound strange, and corny, but there’s nothing more heavenly than connecting with that.”

Alicia’s no sentimental pushover. She says she has a “fierce” side. She describes one of her charges who was “frankly an asshole, and the fact that he was dying hardly softened that one bit. He ticked me off something terrible. I had to draw the line: I’m not just a rug to be walked on, and I’m not doing you a favor if I let you.” But she’s learned to do something when she feels cornered: to “clear away evaluation and just rest someplace that doesn’t have all those opinionated voices in it. When you do that, then out comes this love that melts people—not melts who they are, but who they aren’t. Finding that is just like finding yourself. It makes you feel great.” She laughs. “I swear, it’s a totally selfish thing.”

While we’ve been talking, the phone has been ringing. And ringing. Somebody wants something. Alicia gets up to answer. “If we can’t help each other, what’s the point?” she says. “Everything else gets kinda old after a while.”

Now I’m not trying to sell you on Alicia and Paul as Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi. They’ve had rough patches like any couple; they’re spiritually unfancy folk. They enjoy their bounty with a contagious joie de vivre. You could quibble that, sure, it’s easy to open your heart in the lap of luxury; but I’ve met insanely wealthy people who are more miserable than Midas.

Besides which, I know another family that’s just like Alicia and Paul’s, except they’re living a gritty existence barely above the poverty line. If ninety percent of life is showing up, they go the other twenty. Their door is always open, even if the weathered porch is sagging in. There’s always a pot of chili on the stove. If you drop by, their easy affection embraces you (and you, and you, too). Their small living room feels crowded with conviviality. You can stay a few nights on the fraying couch if cat dander and dog hair don’t bother you too much. They take care of jobs and kids and ailing grandparents and friends’ troubles and community causes, and when I ask them how they do it, they say, “Do what?” Folks like these have basically eliminated any option of pretending I don’t know what we can be for each other. I know for a fact I could stand to be kinder, more generous, fiercer in cleaving to the good, true and beautiful. It could be worth a shot. I’ve been pondering something John of the Cross wrote: “Where you find no love, put love, and you will find love.” Maybe he had some idea what he was talking about.

One evening, I gathered a random assemblage of people to chew the fat about love. Heady types mostly, some with sharp elbows, so they were a little cautious at first. “There’s no remedy for love,” said a poet, lamenting its “misconception and intrigue.” But after they’d proved to each other they weren’t soppy romantics, they admitted there was more to the story.

“Love dismantles the whole judgment thing,” said one, a lawyer. “The sluice gates open, and more water flows over the dam. When that happens, love’s a verb—you can love anything.”

“When we’re in love, we’re a love factory,” a woman said. “We’re churning out so much, we have tons extra to give away.”

“Whenever you love,” opined a political activist, “you’re undermining consumer culture. Who needs all that stuff when you have other people?” He gave a little smirk. “Like they say: Accept no substitutes!” “Love is like the great pulsating orb in old sci-fi movies,” someone effused toward the end of an increasingly well- oiled evening. “The one where no matter how many missiles you fire at it, it just absorbs them all and keeps getting bigger and bigger!”

After they tumbled out into the night, noticeably buoyed, I thought about that last one. Doesn’t love encompass everything you can throw at it? Doesn’t the whole human repertoire spiral out of and circle back to love? Even justice, Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, is only “love correcting that which revolts against love.” It may have been the evening’s wine talking, but suddenly everything seemed to have something to do with love. The same love-molecule, like water, everywhere, in every form: boiling into steam as passion, or freezing into glistening hate, or just flowing, upstream and downstream, into every crack and crevice, irreducible.

Don’t know how to maneuver with your husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, boss, employee, parent, child, friend, enemy? Love! Everything else is just a finger in the dike, holding back an ocean that, ironically, you could happily drown in. Sometimes I think, trying to get it through my own thick seawall of a skull, that compassion means only this: When in doubt, just love.

By the next morning, the effects of the evening’s mild bacchanal had worn off; but I still half-believed it. ♦

Adapted from Field Notes on the Compassionate Life: A Search for the Soul of Kindness, by Marc Ian Barasch © Marc Ian Barasch (Rodale, 2005).