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[Review] The Power of Kindness: The Unexpected Benefits of Leading a Compassionate Life (Tenth Anniversary Edition)

April 11, 2017

Ours is not a particularly big-hearted species. Many of us come of age believing that success is measured in dollars and that kindness, compassion, and a willingness to turn the other cheek are behaviors best left to fools. Our generosity, meager as it often is, is reserved for kith and kin, and when extended to others often comes with a price. We would rather be feared and respected than loved and admired. And so it goes.

Book_the_power_of_kindness_2In The Power of Kindness: The Unexpected Benefits of Leading a Compassionate Life, Italian psychotherapist Piero Ferrucci rejects this ethos and instead asks his readers to reflect on what it truly means to be kind. To help us, Ferrucci explores nineteen "qualities" he deems to be the essential components of kindness, ranging from virtues such as forgiveness, empathy, and patience to honesty, a sense of belonging, and gratitude.

His reasons for doing so aren't solely altruistic. Ferrucci points to a multitude of studies which show that kindness and its related qualities are good for our health and overall sense of well-being. Not, he argues, that we should be kind simply because it's good for us, as though kindness were like "broccoli or exercise" but because, as studies show, we are hardwired to be kind. What's more, Ferrucci argues, integrating kindness more fully into our lives need not be a thankless sacrifice. Instead, we should think of it as bringing a musical instrument into tune with itself. Not necessarily easy, but so essential to our humanity that without it we are, by definition, diminished.

Much has changed in the ten years since the first edition of The Power of Kindness, translated from the Italian by Vivien Reid Ferrucci, was published. The new edition includes a preface by the Dalai Lama, a new introduction by the author, and a chapter on an additional quality, harmlessness, and its relationship to kindness. Like its predecessor, the new edition also addresses many timeless themes, offering advice calibrated to a wide range of situations and leaving ample space for readers to reflect on their own beliefs, priorities, and vulnerabilities. And yet, against the backdrop of our current contentious and deeply polarized political climate, I often found myself considering Ferrucci's advice and guidance and wondering whether the book stands the test of time.

In many ways, I think the answer is yes. Still, its flaws, while fewer in number than its strengths, occasionally detract from its usefulness and, indeed, relevance to our current moment.

Ferrucci repeatedly bemoans, for example, how our consumerist and feverishly fast-paced culture diminishes our ability to connect with ourselves and each other. "In these days of rising impersonality, when a computer voice will say hello and thank you at the supermarket, and people look at their smartphones and not at you, and eat in front of a screen, and die alone, warmth and human contact are a dangerously dwindling resource." True, and if he's not the first to express his frustration with that state of affairs, it seemed to this reader that it would have been more constructive for him to offer a more creative, solution-oriented approach to our collective dilemma. After all, one of the virtues he extols as being essential to kindness is flexibility.

Then, too, the original edition of The Power of Kindness was published before the use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter helped propel a renewed movement for racial justice in the United States — a testament to the power of social media. In today's world, it's more likely an advocate for social change would use a webcam filter to make a statement about the lack of diversity in an industry, or create a data visualization to illustrate the scale of the refugee crisis, giving her audience the chance to empathize and, one can only hope, spurring us to act. If social media and technology can sometimes isolate us and are a poor substitute for meaningful conversation or spending a beautiful day in the park with a friend, they have also made it much easier to learn about what's happening in distant places like Syria or Standing Rock and connect with others to act on that information.

To his credit, Ferrucci addresses those who would smirk at the nostalgia that pops up at various points in the book in his new introduction, writing, "I am not pining for the good old days....If we wish to cultivate solidarity, kindness, care for others, we have more knowledge, instruments, and possibilities than ever before." But it would have been interesting to see him incorporate this theme more fully into the new edition — not least because, in an age in which we are so globally interconnected, one truly can't be kind without also being a concerned global citizen. Yes, from time to time we all have to disengage and "unplug" ourselves from our tech-saturated world. But it's also incumbent on us to harness the tools at our disposal and use them, in loving kindness, to mobilize others on behalf of worthwhile causes.

Another aspect of Ferrucci's book that can be charming at times — and off-putting at others — is its survey approach to the moral and religious traditions of various cultures. While the many stories and anecdotes from around the world he recounts are enjoyable, when he generically describes a story as, for example, "an African tale," he seems to lose sight of the uniqueness of the particular culture in which the story is rooted. He could trust his reader more in such moments. We can handle specificity and may want to know whether, for example, it's a Yoruba story, if for no other reason than to better empathize with those he's portraying. Indeed, as Ferrucci states in the chapter on mindfulness, "the gift of attention is perhaps the most precious and envied of all." To put it another way, being genuinely curious about other people is perhaps the greatest act of kindness.

These minor complaints notwithstanding, The Power of Kindnessis is itself a sort of gift — in that it gives readers an excuse, and a reason, to meditate on kindness in its many forms. And if that, in turn, causes them to share whatever it is they have learned, well, we can hope the world will be the better for it.

Mirielle Clifford is an online resources program associate at the New York Foundation for the Arts. For more great reviews, visit our Off the Shelf section.

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