“Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help” by Larissa MacFarquhar,

Strangers Drowning Offers an Exploration of Extreme Do-Gooding

Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help by Larissa MacFarquhar, Penguin Press, 2015, 320 pages.

Imagine you saw three people drowning: your mother and a pair of strangers. You can only save one or the other. Do you sacrifice your mother to save two strangers? Which is the choice that does the most good? This impossible moral dilemma opens Larissa MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning, an excellent exploration of extreme do-gooding and trying to help in a world where it can feel like helping others is an impossible endeavor.

In Strangers Drowning, Larissa MacFarquhar, a staff writer at The New Yorker, explores extreme do-gooders and what it means to devote one’s life to helping others. The people MacFarquhar profiles often have little in common except for being devoted to helping others.  Some are called by religious belief, others from moral convictions. Some are focused on the communities where they live, while others travel thousands of miles to make a difference. With a variety of examples throughout the book, it becomes evident there is not simply one type of person who is decides to devote their life to helping others.

One of the most compelling profiles was of Kimberly Brown-Whale, a Methodist minister. While many of the people profiled focused their efforts on one cause, like providing medical care, Kimberly seemed devoted to improving the lives of others through any means possible. Driven to do good even as a child, she entered the seminary after college, and served as a missionary for many years. She later became the pastor of a church in Essex, Maryland. After her move, she started a hot meals program in her church, took in pregnant teens, started a community garden, converted the church parsonage into a homeless shelter, and donated a kidney to a stranger. These actions were sometimes met with resistance from the congregation, but Rev. Brown-Whale felt called to help others despite how she was viewed. Through her determination, Kimberly was able to help many people, despite angering some.

MacFarquhar makes no judgments on the subjects she covers. She treats each subject with compassion, but does acknowledge their flaws, whether it is stubbornness or a seemingly blind devotion to their chosen cause. The people profiled are not portrayed as saints, therefore making their stories more relatable. MacFarquhar also acknowledges the suspicion some people feel when viewing the actions of do-gooders in three chapters called “The Undermining of Do-Gooders.” These chapters trace historical and current views on the motivations, philosophy, and psychology behind doing good and how these actions came to be viewed with suspicion.  I appreciated this balanced view, and found myself relating to both the do-gooders and those suspicious of them.

I found Strangers Drowning to be a compelling and challenging read. This is not a book with easy answers. There is no blueprint for how to do the most good. However, this book is an excellent exercise in thinking empathically about the greater world. It will hopefully inspire less suspicion of do-gooders and cause more people to think critically about how they can improve the lives of others.

Elizabeth Weislak works in Youth Services department at the Mebane Public Library. She may be reached at eweislak@alamancelibraries.org or 919-563-6431.