Kathleen Brehony is the author of the widely acclaimed book, Awakening at Midlife (Riverhead, 1996), a classic in its field that was the basis of a PBS special. Her new book, Ordinary Grace: An Examination of the Roots of Compassion, Altruism, and Empathy, and the Ordinary Individuals Who Help Others in Extraordinary Ways (Riverhead, 1999) is filled with stories of people who give of themselves asking nothing in return.
In this interview with Dr. Daniel Redwood, Dr. Brehony describes the motivation behind these extraordinary acts of compassion, discusses the role of challenge and pain in times of transition, and addresses the need to be both creative and secure.
A clinical psychologist in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Brehony is also the co-author (with Robert Gass) of the recently published book Chanting: Discovering Spirit in Sound (Broadway, 1999).
DANIEL REDWOOD: To write Ordinary Grace, you sought out people who had gone the extra mile, helping others in situations where no one would have criticized them had they not performed these acts of service. Is there something that these people have in common that sets them apart from the rest of us?
KATHLEEN BREHONY: Great question. Really, that's the theme of the book, to explore if there is something different. I think they have something that they manifest that the rest of us also have but don't always manifest. There are a number of characteristics, but one of the major ones is this absolute felt connection to other people. In all the people I've talked with, there wasn’t a single one who cited pity. It was pure compassion, a lot of, "There but for the grace of God go I." The other characteristic that immediately comes to mind is that everyone I spoke with seemed to think that to help somebody else was a blessing to them. It wasn’t something that they did expecting a reward. They didn't say, "Look how great I am because I got to help." There was a sense that it felt good to them to give somebody a hand.
REDWOOD: Did they all come from families where this sort of altruism was encouraged and inculcated?
BREHONY: Absolutely not. You’d like to think so, it would make it a little more predictable in some ways. But one of the guys I interviewed, named Tony, was born to a 13-year-old mother in a state mental institution. He was shuttled from foster home to foster home and taken away from his father because his father physically abused him. He was working in the lumberyards and sawmills from the time he was 11 years old. As soon as he was old enough, he went off into the Marines and did two or three tours of duty in Vietnam. This is not somebody you would think would easily come to compassion, and yet he did. He’s this great big guy, from the Virginia Beach area. And he, his wife, and a number of his friends, all motorcyclists, on every non-rainy Sunday afternoon they do something to raise money for a trailer park, kids with muscular dystrophy, adults with multiple sclerosis. He’s known locally as "The Motorcycle Santa."
REDWOOD: I was especially moved by the two stories you told of people who decided to donate kidneys to individuals who were neither relatives nor close friends. Could you relate a short version of those stories and share with us your own personal response when learning what these folks had done?
BREHONY: I read an article about the power of prayer, I think it was in Time or Newsweek. One of the women in it said that she had prayed for her sister, who needed a kidney. She had an unusual last name, and it said that she was from somewhere in Pennsylvania. So I called information and found her father. Because I wasn't yet sure that he was related to her, I said I was an old friend of hers from college and asked how I could reach her. When he said he was her father, I explained who I really was and I eventually tracked her down in California. She was in her mid-30s, her kidneys were shutting down, and she was going to die in spite of dialysis. She comes from a large Chinese-American family. She has tons of relatives, it’s a close family. They all were tested to see if anyone could donate, but none was a match, not even her sisters and brothers.