Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help

Larissa MacFarquhar
(Penguin Press)

Who would refuse to help a drowning stranger? Yet in a global­ized world where ­starving children are always within reach (at least of our donations), that’s essentially what most of us do, reasoning that we can’t save everyone. MacFarquhar gravitates to the exceptions: the people who spare nothing to help others. After Hector and Sue Badeau adopt two children, social services ask them to take another; they end up with twenty-two. Baba Amte finds a leper dying at the roadside, and winds up founding a community for hundreds. For some of those profiled, doing good becomes compulsive; others burn out. MacFarquhar tells their stories sympathetically, probing why our society has given do-gooders such a bad rap. True, the danger of hubris is real: untethered from faith in God, attempts at world-saving ultimately lead to despair. Yet – as we learn from Francis of Assisi, Damien of Molokai, or Teresa of Calcutta – extremism in compassion is no vice. And so: what about us?