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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 brother’s keeperand act on it.
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.