ORDINARY GRACE by Kathleen A. Brehony


An Examination of the Roots of Compassion, Altruism and Empathy, and the Ordinary Individuals Who Help Others in Extraordinary Ways
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A heartening inquiry into why ordinary folks routinely go the second mile for others, by clinical psychologist Brehony (Awakening at Midlife: Realizing Your Potential for Growth and Change, 1996). What causes altruism in some people? Is it nature or nurture? The author makes a strong case for nature here, drawing from research on newborns and primates to argue for an innate, biologically based compassion. Such instincts are either reinforced or quelled by life experiences, though Brehony says that in some people, even truly horrifying childhood traumas only intensify the impulse to be kind to others. The quiet strength of this book lies in its storytelling, as Brehony draws upon field research, follows up on media stories, or even employs members of her own family to demonstrate that people can and do carry out tremendously empathic actions every day. We meet a New Jersey couple who have adopted four HIV-positive Romanian orphans, and a doctor who sacrifices all of his free time to procuring computers so that terminally ill children can communicate with one another in cyberspace. Brehony devotes a whole chapter to organ donation, describing incidents with both deceased and living donors (in two instances, people felt moved to donate a kidney to a casual friend). Another chapter explores how a couple who lost their child to a degenerative illness raised tens of thousands of dollars to design and build a “wheelchair-friendly” playground where all kids can play together, regardless of physical ability. Brehony writes that those who exhibit this kind of “ordinary grace” classically show an optimism about the fundamental goodness of humanity (“Anyone would do what I did”), as well as a conviction that they are the ones who have been blessed by the giving. A restorative tonic, more than mere chicken soup for the soul—because it may well inspire readers to go out and do something good for somebody.

Pub Date: March 8th, 1999
ISBN: 1-57322-108-2
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Riverhead
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 1999


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