Synopses & Reviews
How far do you really go to do unto others”? Renowned New Yorker journalist Larissa MacFarquhar reveals the individuals who devote themselves fully to bettering the lives of strangers, even when it comes at great personal cost
There are those of us who help and those who live to help. In Strangers Drowning, celebrated journalist Larissa MacFarquhar digs deep into the psychological roots and existential dilemmas motivating those rare individuals practicing lives of extreme ethical commitment. The donor who offers up her kidney to a complete stranger; the activist who abandons possessions to devote himself to the cause; the foster parent who adopts dozens of children: such do-gooders inspire us but also force us to question deep-seated notions about what it means to be human. How could these do-gooders value strangers as much as their own loved ones? What does it really take to live a life of extreme virtue? Might it mean making choices as heartbreaking as the one in the old philosophy problem: abandoning a single family member to drown so that two strangers might live?
Evocative, unprecedented, and profoundly moving, Strangers Drowning combines real-life stories of unimaginable selflessness along with deep meditations on the shocking implications of these ethical acts. How best to live in a world of suffering? How much can I afford to give, and should I give more? Am I responsible for other individuals, even at the expense of my friends and family? What am I entitled to as an individual, knowing that so many others lack so much? Exploring these questions gracefully, MacFarquhar grounds her philosophical inquiry in the lives of do-gooders ranging from central India to a desolate part of Baltimore, from the foster homes of Vermont to the suicide clinics of Japan. With admiration and a healthy skepticism, MacFarquhar shows that such individuals are far from perfect and their actions often explosively backfire. Yet in their courageous attempts to reach for a higher ideal, to rescue as many people as they possibly can, these do-gooders show us the deepest and strongest foundations of the human species.
What MacFarquhar ultimately reveals is that the difference between the do-gooder and the majority is simply one of perspective. The mind-set of the do-gooder can be compared with those living in wartime: where strangers become comrades, where heroism becomes expected, where above and beyond” suddenly becomes the altogether ordinary. Showing that the first step to changing the world is to simply change our own minds, MacFarquhar offers unforgettable insights that allow us to decisively examine our own convictions.
Elegant, provocative, and unforgettable, Strangers Drowning illuminates those remarkable few who know they are their brothers keeperand act on it.
What does it mean to devote yourself wholly to helping others? In Strangers Drowning, Larissa MacFarquhar seeks out people living lives of extreme ethical commitment and tells their deeply intimate stories; their stubborn integrity and their compromises; their bravery and their recklessness; their joys and defeats and wrenching dilemmas.
A couple adopts two children in distress. But then they think: If they can change two lives, why not four? Or ten? They adopt twenty. But how do they weigh the needs of unknown children in distress against the needs of the children they already have?
Another couple founds a leprosy colony in the wilderness in India, living in huts with no walls, knowing that their two small children may contract leprosy or be eaten by panthers. The children survive. But what if they hadn t? How would their parents risk have been judged?
A woman believes that if she spends money on herself, rather than donate it to buy life-saving medicine, then she s responsible for the deaths that result. She lives on a fraction of her income, but wonders: when is compromise self-indulgence and when is it essential?
We honor such generosity and high ideals; but when we call people do-gooders there is skepticism in it, even hostility. Why do moral people make us uneasy? Between her stories, MacFarquhar threads a lively history of the literature, philosophy, social science, and self-help that have contributed to a deep suspicion of do-gooders in Western culture.
Through its sympathetic and beautifully vivid storytelling, Strangers Drowning confronts us with fundamental questions about what it means to be human. In a world of strangers drowning in need, how much should we help, and how much can we help? Is it right to care for strangers even at the expense of those we are closest to? Moving and provocative, Strangers Drowning challenges us to think about what we value most, and why.
From the Hardcover edition."
About the Author
LARISSA MACFARQUHAR has been a staff writer at The New Yorker
since 1998. Her subjects have included John Ashbery, Barack Obama, and Noam Chomsky, among many others. Before joining the magazine, she was a senior editor at Lingua Franca
and an advisory editor at The Paris Review
. She lives in New York.